Cooler heads prevailed Tuesday as the county’s elected officials collectively voted to earmark $6 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to, if necessary, shore up the budget for an estimated $32.5 million expansion to the Knox County Jail.

Members of the county council met in special session Tuesday following a regular meeting of the county commissioners in the hopes of finally coming to an agreement on whether to spend nearly all of the $7 million in federal funds — ones aimed at bolstering communities through the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic — on the jail expansion, which includes a new, adjacent building for community corrections.

And agree, they did, to take the risk.

“This (resolution) just affirms to bidders that the project is going to go forward,” county attorney Andrew Porter explained to members of the county council as they gathered at the Pantheon, 428 Main St.

“It’s not Option A. It’s a last resort.”

The commissioners voted first 2-1 to approve the resolution earmarking the $6 million in federal funds.

The county needs the money because the council can only bond about $26 million using funds from a reinstated jail tax in 2019. They need an estimated $32.5 million.

Pledging $6 million in ARPA funds, financial advisors have explained, allows the project to move forward.

But there is hope 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, 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, but one likely to pay off, county officials say.

Commissioners T.J. Brink and Trent Hinkle voted in favor of using the ARPA monies to shore up the budget, if necessary.

Commissioner Kellie Streeter, however, voted against the measure, not immediately offering an explanation as to why.

Five members of the council then approved the same resolution pledging the $6 million in federal funds to the jail expansion.

Neither councilman David Culp nor Rich Chattin were in attendance Tuesday, although Chattin, during a phone call, did express his support for the resolution.

Council members reiterated, however, time and again, that they were simply pledging the money; it’s their hope that either one — or both — of the reimbursement methods work out and they don’t have to actually spend it.

Councilman Harry Nolting said the resolution approved by county officials this week serves simply “as a guarantee for the loan.”

“We’re pledging it, if all else fails, if no other money comes in, then we’d have to use that,” he explained to an audience member.

Councilman Dan Reitmeyer, too, said he “doesn’t like to see us using this much” of the ARPA funds, but he’s trusting financial advisors that they won’t have to.

“A lot of people are wanting to get a piece of the ARPA pie,” he said as the commissioners have received a handful of informal applications for the money. “Unfortunately, they’re not all going to get one.

“But, hopefully, we can find a way to get some of this money back.”

Council president Bob Lechner said he agreed, and that “everyone was in concert” with that same hope.

“This does not commit the money,” he said. “We are simply pledging it.”

The more peaceful meeting Tuesday ensures the jail project will be bid come February.

What those bids look like will dictate whether or not construction moves forward.

A regular meeting of the county council last week turned unexpectedly hostile as council members and the 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 ARPA funds to possibly bridge the shortfall.

The jail design, done by Vincennes’ firm RQAW, currently includes three main parts: a new $10 million community corrections building as well as a new pod of 120 beds for the jail and a complementary expansion to its intake area, among other amenities.

Several alternates will be included on bid day, including a second pod that would be constructed as a shell, paving the way for another expansion later, should it be necessary.

The commissioners actually began this process more than a year ago by hiring RQAW to take a look at the future needs of the jail. In presenting those findings, RQAW recommended the expansion, specifically the construction of an additional pod — nearly doubling the jail’s current bed capacity.

The jail opened in 2007 to house 200 inmates, but it’s consistently been over capacity since.

The jail study also looked at the current community corrections building, which shares a space with the probation office downtown at 147 N. Eighth St.

It’s over-capacity most of the time, too, officials have said, and its design leaves them dependent upon video surveillance as opposed to direct supervision.

The new building would take community corrections to near 250-person capacity.

Terre Haute-based Garmong Construction is serving as construction manager on the project.
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