The local Jail/Law Enforcement Center Facility Committee decided unanimously Tuesday night that they will recommend to the Clay County Commission that a new county jail and law enforcement center be constructed on a 7.4 parcel of land bordering W. Cherry Street and Stanford Street.
The site, known as Option West, makes up approximately half of a 14.2-acre empty field that is available for purchase which presented the committee with three different buying options.
The first option is to purchase the entire 14.2 acres, which the owner would sell for approximately $1.86 million. This piece of land is bordered by Cherry Street on the south, Stanford Street on the west and Carr Street, which serves mainly as an access road, on the east.
Alternatively, the owner is willing to sell the east 6.8 acres of the property for $1.1 million. This is known as Option East.
Just before voting on a motion to recommend the Option West purchase to the Clay County Commission, committee members discussed whether it would be wise to simply purchase the entire 14.2 acres rather than half of the available property.
“Why aren’t we buying the whole 14 acres,” committee member John Walker asked.
“We don’t need it,” Steven Waller, committee chairman, replied, “and that’s money that can be put to the project.”
“I’m just afraid if we don’t get that (the remaining property) – what if somebody buys that other seven acres?” Walker asked.
The owner of the 14-acre parcel has given the county the option of buying any additional amount of the east acreage over the next five years at $4 per square feet. The entire 14.2 acres, if purchased all at once, would have a $3 per square foot price or a total price that would be approximately $500,000 more than purchasing the 7.2 acres.
Dan Christopherson told committee members that he feared that purchasing more property than is needed for the project would be a deal-breaker for local voters should they need to decide on a bond issue to finance the construction of the new jail/LEC.
Walker said he hopes the property owner, in discussion with the county commission, would consider further lowering the price of the entire parcel of land so that it may be purchased all at once.
“If I was sitting on the county commission, I would really look at that and say, ‘I think that’s a good deal. I’m not land-locked for any reason. We can add on in 25 years or 50 years … I just look at it as being wise business.”
“John, the other aspect of that is we have to have a bond issue that’s going to pass,” Bob Fuller, committee member, said.
“If you’ve looked at your property tax receipts and what just came in, there’s going to be some huge additions to that and it’s already gone up considerably,” Christopherson said, “so, if you want it to pass a vote of the people, given that we already have a school bond out there, this is going to have to face public scrutiny and I think buying more than you need is not going to make it easy to pass it.”
Sheriff Andy Howe told committee members that Walker voiced a question that likely be asked by many people throughout the community.
“I think it’s fair that John brings it up and this topic gets some good consideration because there are other people that see the value in that,” he said, “and I think the question needs to be answered as to ‘why not?’ I’m hearing good reasons for why not, but there are people that believe that all for $3 (all of the property for $3 per square feet) is the way to go.
“I appreciate the discussion because it will come up,” the sheriff said. “There are people that are going to ask about it and I think it is appropriate to have the answer for why not all of it, because people are going to ask. I imagine this will be debated in the county commission meeting.”
“I guess Andy, to that point, I’m curious to know why we don’t want more control over who our neighbors are,” committee member Meghan McCauley asked. “If we’re only buying the parcel that we need right this minute, which was just discussed, then doesn’t the property owner have the ability to, after that option expires, sell it to whomever he wants and we have no control over who our neighbors are at that point?”
“That’s always the case when property is for sale next door to you and the only way to control that is to buy it,” Howe said, “but again, this is public money and the people have to decide that.”
Walker also expressed concern that the county wouldn’t have the funding to purchase any additional land after making the initial 7.2-acre purchase and could someday in the future again find itself landlocked with no good option to expand facilities when that need arises.
“I’m struggling with trying to understand why I would spend another 35 percent more money to buy something just to have it in my possession,” Waller said.
Vermillion Alderman Rich Holland, who serves as a city representative on the facility committee, said 7.2 acres is plenty of property for the proposed jail/LEC.
“The more land we buy, the more land we take off the tax roll,” he said. “I don’t want to take more land off the tax roll. We were talking before of land in the neighborhood of four acres, so we have plenty of room for expansion. I doubt very much if we’re going to double our need for jails in the next 50 years, but even if we do, we have plenty of room for expansion with 7.2 acres without taking unnecessary land off the tax roll.”
The Clay County Commission agreed in March 2021 to ask voters to approve the issuance of $41 million in bonds to finance the construction of a new county jail, law enforcement safety center, courts and government services facility at a different site other than the present century-old courthouse in Vermillion, which contains the county jail.
The bond issue failed overwhelmingly at the polls. Of the 2,310 Clay County voters that cast ballots to whether the county should seek a $41 million bond issue, 1,544 voted “no.” That equates to approximately 66.8% of voters indicating they did not favor the county’s plan.
Both the courthouse and the current law enforcement center, which were constructed in 1912 and 1989, respectively, would have been vacated had the June bond issue been approved. Plans call for the present uses of those facilities to move to a new structure, should voters approve to fund it. Discussion of courthouse issues has included the possible repurposing of the present law enforcement center into new uses by the county.
Howe noted that the measure that failed in June would have, if passed, constructed a courthouse/jail/LEC facility on about eight acres of land.
“This is all good discussion and it has to be discussed because the (county) commission is going to be faced with this decision and they’re going to have to defend it,” the sheriff said. “That’s why I’m really encouraging everybody to really kick it around tonight and make sure that these arguments are made so that the commission can make an informed decision and make the right one to make sure we can pass this issue, assuming it comes to a vote. That’s what matters to me is success.”
The committee has been busy since 2019, studying jail and courthouse structures in the region and working with consultants to provide the best options for the county commission to consider. After the failed bond vote in June, the committee focused on finding the best site for a new jail/LEC facility.
By late last year, it had three sites in mind: the Cherry Street site and sites on National Street north of the current courthouse, jail and law enforcement center and on Cottage Street near the Vermillion Fire Station where a trailer park was once located.
A fourth, suggested site, brought up last week – the Clay County Fairgrounds – was found to not be a viable option.
“We determined that while the site does have potential value for the jail and law enforcement center, it’s a vision at this moment and doesn’t have enough of a plan that it could successfully move forward,” Waller said.
Working to see if the fairgrounds would work would delay the jail/LEC, which alone may cost millions of dollars, Waller said.
It would also require finding new property for the fairgrounds, which likely would have been very challenging, he said.