County commissioner T.J. Brink, left, and county council president Bob Lechner on Wednesday listen to RQAW architect Lara Dawson go over a handful of cuts made to the original jail expansion design in recent weeks. The committee voted to offer a favorable recommendation back to the commissioners on the modified design. It will now be up to the county council to secure the necessary funding, or about $32.5 million, which includes both construction and soft costs. Sun-Commercial photo by Jenny McNeece
County commissioner T.J. Brink, left, and county council president Bob Lechner on Wednesday listen to RQAW architect Lara Dawson go over a handful of cuts made to the original jail expansion design in recent weeks. The committee voted to offer a favorable recommendation back to the commissioners on the modified design. It will now be up to the county council to secure the necessary funding, or about $32.5 million, which includes both construction and soft costs. Sun-Commercial photo by Jenny McNeece
Members of a committee charged with overseeing an expansion to the Knox County Jail on Wednesday decided to recommend that county elected officials move forward with a project totaling an estimated $32.5 million.

It will now be up to the county council to find a way to fully fund it, but with time ticking — and construction costs increasing by the day — commissioner T.J. Brink said they must continue to move forward.

“We’re putting the cart before the horse here, I know, but we have to keep this moving if we expect to get to that January letting date,” he told his fellow committee members as they gathered at the Knox County Jail, 2375 S. Old Decker Road.

“If we don’t, I’m afraid we won’t have a project (for another year).”

Committee members heard the details of about $3 million in cuts made to the original design presented to them this summer from local firm RQAW.

That design was, in total, upwards of $36 million, including both construction and soft costs, things like fees for design and construction management, among other things.

The county, however, doesn’t have that much to spend, so architects began working with Sheriff Doug Vantlin and Scott Brown, director of the county’s community corrections program, to make some cuts.

In the meantime, too, the county council is looking to the county’s $7 million share of American Rescue Plan Act funds as well as a legislative change that would allow them to borrow money over 25 years instead of 22 to shore up the $26 million they’re currently looking to bond.

When expressing concern about finding all the funds necessary — after a lesser total of $29 million was discussed by the council just two weeks ago — county councilman David Culp said he was hesitant to approve a plan the county might not be able to afford.

County council president Bob Lechner, however, said he was confident the county could make it all work.

Whereas two weeks ago they were looking at choosing one way forward, the additional monies may require them to get creative in combining two or even three funding opportunities.

“We’ve just moved from an ‘either/or’ situation to an ‘and’ situation,” Lechner told the group. “It involves a little bit of a leap of faith.”

“And there could be an option C and D not even on the table yet,” he eluded but without providing any further details.

Recommending that the commissioners approve the design when they next meet on Dec. 7 also ensures RQAW can move toward total completion, thereby not delaying construction while the council settles on a funding plan.

There is still hope, architect Lara Dawson and construction managers with Terre Haute-based Garmong Construction said, for a late January letting and construction just before summer.

“I think that gives everybody a little bit of breathing room,” Brink said.

“We all seem very much in agreement that we want to keep this ball rolling.”

The current design does include multiple cuts from the original design.

“We’ve met both with the sheriff and Scott multiple times. We’ve gone round and round on changes, put a dozen things on the table,” Dawson said. “And I think we came to a conclusion on what will make the most sense, not only for the county now but in the future.”

The new community corrections building, set to be constructed adjacent to the jail, is smaller than before, but total capacity of just over 250 men and women remained the same, Dawson said, or at least after some existing, larger furniture is phased out in favor of something smaller later.

Between additional beds in expanded intake and medical areas and a totally new pod, the jail’s capacity is expected to increase from 200 now up to about 370.

When asked about the cuts to the original design, Brown said he was “happy” while the sheriff said he was “content.”

“Happy isn’t the word I would use,” Vantlin said when asked if he was. “But I’m content.

“It’s good for now. It’ll work.”

Dawson, too, said she’s working to give the county options.

In addition to the base bid, she plans to include a handful of alternates; that way, if bids somehow come in under the current estimate, they can add on.

Included in those alternates, she said, would be additional isolation cells in the new intake area of the jail, additional day rooms and individual cells. Too, a whole other pod — one that could be finished out later, when necessary — will be included as an alternate.

“So we’ll get those numbers on bid day, and we can determine what you want to accept and not to accept,” Dawson said.

Regardless, Brink said he looked forward “to the next phase.”

County elected officials 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 — possibly more than 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 county council plans to leverage the income from a reinstated jail tax to fund the majority of the project.
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