County council to pursue $29 million in funding for expansion to jail

County elected officials will move forward with a $29 million expansion to the Knox County Jail, including a new site for its community corrections program.


Members of the county council met in special session Monday morning at the Pantheon, 428 Main St., to discuss financing for the proposed jail expansion, and after nearly two hours of talks, opted to move forward with financing just over $29 million for a slightly scaled-back design, a move likely made possible by taking as much as $3 million from the county’s share of American Rescue Plan Act funds.


The council heard first from Lara Dawson, an architect with Vincennes’ RQAW, on cuts that had been made in recent weeks from the originally-proposed $32 million jail expansion and adjacent community corrections facility.


Those cuts, Dawson explained, now total about $3 million, bringing the total proposed project down to about $29.15 million. On the surface, that’s still a far cry from the $26 million the county has to spend — on everything from design to a construction manager to actual construction — but Oscar Gutierrez, founder and principal of Bondry Management Consultants in Carmel, said that’s not necessarily the case.


Gutierrez encouraged the council to consider using up to $3 million of the county’s estimated $7 million in ARPA funds to shore up the project; that federal money, meant to bolster communities through the lingering effects of COVID-19, can’t be spent on new construction, but it could used specifically on the jail expansion since it’s considered to be a renovation, allowing other dollars to flow toward community corrections.


And while, since time is of the essence, the council did opt to move in that direction, another option may, too, be possible. There is currently a discrepancy in an existing state law; jail projects can be financed out 22 years, but bond sales can be taken out to 25. Council president Bob Lechner said he has talked with local representatives in the General Assembly who are eager to repair the error, but that isn’t likely to happen until spring.


The county, in order to both secure a lower interest rate and to beat ever-increasing construction costs, plans to take the project out for bid in late January. “I’m not trying to pressure anybody into doing anything,” Gutierrez said, “but financially…”


“It’s good,” finished councilman Harry Nolting.


But being able to finance the project out 25 years, too, would make up the necessary $3 million shortfall. Either way, county council members seemed confident in funding the full $29 million project.


“We have viable options,” Nolting said. “The question is, are we ready to pull the trigger on this?


“Is there anything keeping us from making the commitment at this point?”


Councilman Rich Chattin and council president Bob Lechner did, however, press pause, however briefly, to revisit the expansion design as it currently exists. Some major cuts have been made, and Sheriff Doug Vantlin has been hesitant to say that he’s still getting enough. The originally-proposed jail pod has already been cut by half, allowing for just over 100 new beds, and Vantlin said 40 of them will be filled the day the expansion is complete. “For the time being, is it good enough? Yes,” he told the council. “Ten to fifteen years down the road, I don’t know.”


Scott Brown, director of the county’s community corrections program, said he was more confident in his current design, which significantly increases his capacity.


Too, once some existing, larger furniture can be phased out and smaller furniture brought in, that capacity will increase even more.


In the end, the council went ahead and decided to pursue taking $3 million from the county’s share of ARPA funds — something they will have to confer with the county commissioners about — and still hope they can finance the project out to 25 years, a move that would allow for even more funds on the back side of the project, if needed. When those options are added together, Lechner said he saw funding as a “100% certainty.” The council looked immediately to bond counsel Barnes and Thornburg, Indianapolis, to draft the necessary resolution. Council members hope to have that in hand tonight when they meet in regular session.


Should they approve the bond sale, financing efforts will begin, and Dawson said she hopes to begin letting the project — which will be done in multiple bids in an effort to secure the lowest cost all around — by late January.


“Good, I’m ready to move forward,” Nolting said.