Vermillion City Council members Howard Willson and Rich Holland have agreed to be members of the Clay County Law Enforcement Center/Facility Planning Committee.
The committee’s task will be somewhat similar to its predecessor -- the Courthouse, Jail, and Law Enforcement Facility Planning Committee -- but this time, the Clay County Courthouse won’t be part of the committee’s discussion.
The former committee’s goal was to assist the Clay County Commission and the Vermillion City Council by reviewing a study performed in 2018 by Klein McCarthy Architects, exploring the options for meeting the identified facility needs, and providing recommendations.
It appears the goal of this revamped committee will be to refocus its efforts on the future construction of a new county jail and new law enforcement center that would house the Clay County Sheriff’s Department and the Vermillion Police Department, should the city choose to be part of this project.
The county commission had hoped that county citizens would approve a decision it made March 30 to seek a $41 million bond issue to finance the construction of a new county jail, law enforcement safety center, courts, government services, land acquisition costs, and current courthouse stabilization and exterior preservation.
The commission’s decision was overwhelmingly rejected by county voters, however. Approximately 67% of voters who participated in the election voted against the plan which would, if approved, emptied the more than century old courthouse.
“We just wanted to have a little bit of time to discuss and give them (Willson and Holland) any feedback that we wanted to,” Mayor Kelsey Collier-Wise said at the Vermillion City Council’s noon meeting Tuesday, “or allow them to ask questions as we haven’t really, as a body, had a discussion.”
Present at Tuesday’s meeting were Clay County Commission Chairman Travis Mockler and Clay County Sheriff Andy Howe, who both serve in an advisory, non-voting role on the committee.
“I have no idea at what stage things are at now and what decisions are to be made,” Holland said.
Mockler said there are seven voting members on the committee presently. That will grow to nine with the addition of Willson and Holland.
“I guess my thoughts, what I took from the election, is people were more concerned about the courthouse and not having a location for a jail,” Alderman Steve Ward said. “Depending on how you guys want to strategize the vote, I could see separating those two things if you needed a lower dollar amount.”
Ward noted that the Vermillion School District will be asking patrons to approve a $26 million bond issue in October that, if approved by voters, will finance the construction of a new elementary school.
“I think the jail, to me, and the law enforcement center and the dispatch -- those three things to me are more critical. What I don’t think is going to be wise is if we put the same stuff out there,” he said. “We’ve got to change some elements of the vote, right? We probably need a location and we’ve got to have a plan for the courthouse if we’re going to keep them together. But, again, my thought is to not keep them together.”
“The committee going forward now is going to be a jail/law enforcement center committee. That’s what we’re focusing on,” Mockler said. “Get the site; get the jail built with the law enforcement center. We’re wanting the city to come along so they understand -- do they want to bring the police department with us like it is currently and get that spot figured out.”
Willson noted that the committee has held one meeting since the election and picked three options of property where the new jail and law enforcement center may be located.
“Two of them are outside of the city limits so one of my questions is do we want city law enforcement people to be headquartered in the county?” he asked.
“I believe legally, you can’t,” Mockler said, “and the sheriff has to be housed within the county seat.”
If the new site of the jail/law enforcement center is outside of the city limits, he said, it will have to be annexed into the city.
“As far as feedback that Howard and Rich will need from us, there’s going to be the financial questions about what our investment is and what form it takes,” Collier-Wise said. “There’s going to be the question of location, how comfortable we feel with the location being away from the center of the city south or north of Highway 50, etc., accessibility to our officers and just generally what we believe the citizens would support going forward.
“Those are the kinds of things they’ll (Willson and Holland) will probably be coming to us with and asking for feedback on, but if there are things that we feel strongly about,” she said, “we want to make sure we are represented. They’re the ones we want to share that with.”
Mockler said it estimated that the jail and law enforcement, based on plans that were worked with in previous studies, would cost about $26.2 million and the city’s share of that would be approximately $6 million.
Alderman Travis Letellier asked, “How do we handle courthouse repair and upkeep and renovation while that’s running parallel --”
“It’s not going to be,” Mockler said. “The committee is not going to even discuss the courthouse.”
“And ultimately it is not our courthouse,” Collier-Wise said, noting that the city council has no decision-making power over its care, “so we don’t really have a say in its upkeep.”
Holland asked if any deadlines have been set and if future plans call for holding another election regarding funding.
“We’ve been kicking around the idea of doing what they did here with city hall with a lease-purchase and then we opt out to cover the payment,” Mockler said. “So, whenever the time comes, we’ll do that resolution. I’d still like to get to building (the new jail/law enforcement center) next year.”
He noted that the county commission is preparing to opt out for $750,000 at its next meeting just to pay for housing Clay County prisoners in the jails of other counties.
Sheriff Howe had noted in the time leading up to the June election that if the vote failed, it would likely mean he would have to close the jail. In a Thursday, June 10 meeting of the county commission, he announced that he planned to use the county jail as a holding facility where inmates would not be kept longer than 72 hours before being moved, if necessary to cells in surrounding county jails, including Yankton, Union and Minnehaha.
He told commissioners last month that there was about $70,000 remaining in this year’s jail budget. That means his total request for housing prisoners next year will reflect a growth of about $250,000 in that budget.
Howe told city council members Tuesday that the average population in the Clay County Jail is currently 19 and seems to be climbing.
“We’re looking at a 40- to 45-bed jail to take us 50 years down the road,” the sheriff said, “and we need that to house 25 inmates as it is.”
“Does the council have a feeling of if we want to stay with a joint law enforcement center or do we want to separate?” Willson asked.
City Council member Katherine Price noted that the strong opinion of the Police Chief Matt Betzen is for the two law enforcement agencies to continue being housed together as they are currently.
“I think the only argument not to is if the city doesn’t agree with the choice of location, design or cost to the extent that we don’t feel that we can be part of it,” the mayor said. “I think that’s the important part of having representatives so that if we have strong feelings about any of those items, we have someone there to say ‘the city will not continue to be supportive if this piece goes forward.’”
Mockler said three locations for the new jail/law enforcement facility are being considered.
“One is along Cherry Street west of Best Western. There’s 14 acres there,” he said.
A second location is a 32 acre parcel of land west of Polaris bordered by Sanford Street. The third location is 37 acres straight north of Walmart and north of the Highway 50 bypass.
Mockler said it is estimated that at least 12 to 15 acres would be needed for the new facility.
“We don’t want to get landlocked,” he said.
There are no voting representatives from the county on the committee, Howe said, informing city council members of its makeup.
“There are no commissioners on it although they often attend; it’s an open meeting,” he said.
Howe said he and Auditor Carri Crum are on the committee to fill the roles of advisor and staff, as well as Vermillion Police Chief Matt Betzen.
“He’s attended every meeting so far,” Howe said. “Otherwise, the voting members are all members of the community.”
Voting members of the committee, according to the Clay County website, are Robert Fuller, Marty Gilbertson, Gregory Huckabee, Meghan McCauley, John Walker, Steven Waller and Nate Welch.