Time is ticking on the county’s ability to pursue an expansion to the Knox County Jail come springtime.

But moving forward will take county elected officials agreeing on a source of funding, something that has already proven difficult.

Members of a jail committee met on Thursday at the Knox County Jail, 2375 S. Old Decker Road, to continue discussions of a possible $32.5 million expansion to the jail itself as well as a new, adjacent building for community corrections.

A regular meeting of the county council on Tuesday turned unexpectedly hostile as council members and the Knox County Commissioners, all three of which were in attendance, found themselves in a heated argument both about the overall jail budget as well as whether or not they would use the county’s share of American Rescue Plan Act funds to bridge a shortfall.

And on Thursday, the jail committee, a meeting most of the commissioners and council members attended, county elected officials learned it could take even more of those ARPA funds — nearly all of them — to shore up the budget.

The committee heard once again from Oscar Gutierrez, founder and principal of Bondry Management Consultants in Carmel, who expressed some confusion in that he thought using the ARPA funds was a done deal; it was discussed at length during a meeting he attended of the county council in November.

But the council never took action, finding out later that about $3 million in soft costs was left off the estimates they discussed.

It will actually now take more of those federal funds, Gutierrez clarified.

The county can use revenue from the reinstated jail tax to bond about $26 million; it needs $32.5 million to build the full jail project as it’s currently designed.

So the county, he said, needs to be willing to commit $6 million in ARPA funds to move forward. The total amount coming to the county in those federal dollars — ones with a variety of possible uses meant to bolster communities through the lingering effects of COVID-19 — is $7 million.

But there is hope, Gutierrez said, of seeing those funds reimbursed later.

The county will seek a legislative change that would allow them to extend the bonds over 25 years, thereby easily closing the funding gap.

The county, too, in a separate endeavor, is working alongside the city council to establish a Local Income Tax to fund the establishment of a new ambulance service.

Funds from that revenue source can be used on anything public safety related, Gutierrez said, so the county could potentially pay itself back with revenue generated by the LIT, should the city and county agree to pass one in the spring.

It’s a gamble, he said, but one likely to pay off.

“We are ready to bring a resolution forward, he said. “The second you guys make a decision, we can begin the process.”

But time is of the essence.

Local architectural firm RQAW has been working alongside the construction manager, Garmong Construction Services, Terre Haute, to let the project out for bid in early February.

The hope is to award a contract in mid-March and see work begin in April.

But without an agreement soon between the council and the commissioners on how to shore up the budget, they can’t move forward.

To ensure money is ready to go when contractors bid, the county’s legal counsel, Rick Hall with Barnes and Thornburg in Indianapolis, said county elected officials need to decide “as soon as possible.”

But county elected officials now seem hesitant on how best to move forward, if at all.

County councilman Rich Chattin, a member of the jail committee, pointed out that the county could go ahead with the jail expansion, which includes a larger intake area as well as a new pod of beds, for a total of $26 million, which would include a handful of wish-list alternates adding even more beds and amenities, including a whole new pod that could be outfitted later.

Chattin said he just wan’t sure how comfortable he was putting all the ARPA funds on the table.

“We’d be spending all that money and hoping the legislature plays ball with us,” he said. “It just starts to become a lot of ‘what ifs’ in my mind.”

“Or you could come up with another $10 million, and we could call it a day,” fired back commissioner T.J. Brink.

“I don’t like it either,” Chattin replied, “but I’m throwing darts on the wall.”

Commission president Trent Hinkle, too, said the county could look at doing the jail first and community corrections later. At least some cost savings would be realized since the project is already designed.

Brink, too, reminded everyone that moving forward with nothing at all is still an option — an option to which Sheriff Doug Vantlin quickly cried foul.

“We have to do something,” the sheriff said. “The jail tax is already out there.

“So doing nothing is not an option.”

Councilman Harry Nolting, however, said he wasn’t opposed to pledging most of the county’s ARPA funds to the jail project; he likened it to an “if all else fails” situation, meaning he, too, was confident at least one of the two reimbursement methods was likely to work out.

The county’s legal counsel, Andrew Porter, too, said pledging — not necessarily spending — the federal dollars to the jail requires a simple amendment to a very vague expenditure plan passed by the commissioners months ago.

In the end, everyone agreed to go to their corners and think.

The council and commissioners will meet together in special session following the commissioners’ regular meeting, set for 6 p.m. on Tuesday.

The special joint meeting will begin at 7.
Copyright ©2022 Vincennes Sun Commercial