Larry McDevitt

Larry McDevitt

Jackson County supervisors are second-guessing plans to hold a third jail referendum in March, after some people Monday night argued that the public won’t approve a jail projected to cost more and with fewer beds than the previous proposal.

The second bond referendum for $6.495 million failed in August. It would have built a 74-bed jail at a site near Wal-Mart, with the help of a $300,000 donation.

The latest plan eliminates the expansion, keeping the jail to 50 beds. It also proposes a different location, the corner of Maple Street and Jacobsen Drive in Maquoketa’s industrial park.

But material costs have increased significantly since the August vote, and bids for the nearby Delaware County jail came back much higher than expected. John Hansen of Midwest Construction Consultants recommends setting a bond referendum not to exceed $6.85 million.

For more than two hours Monday night, jail advisory committee members and members of the public rehashed old questions and raised some new ones about the proposed new jail. 

Some people suggested looking again at the old hospital property or planning for a space that would accommodate a future courthouse.

“What do you want from us right now?” asked Jon Thoms. “How are you going to sell this to the taxpayers of Jackson County who have turned this thing down in the past?”

Hansen replied that the county has found a better site and is holding the plan to 50 beds. The jail committee put forth few details for a marketing plan, besides a consensus that one was needed.

The 2019 referendum failed by 104 votes to get the 60 percent approval needed to pass. It earned about 57.5 percent voter approval, a 5 percent increase over the first vote in 2018.

Supervisor Larry McDevitt said the cost of building a new jail would be paid off eventually. “If we keep housing [inmates] out of county, the cost goes on and on. It’s like renting a house for 30 years when you could have bought it in 20.”

Supervisors have until Friday, Jan. 17, to set a vote for March 3. They have only one regular meeting, Tuesday, Jan. 14, before that window expires.

The next possible referendum date would be in August.

Supervisor Jack Willey said it’s the prerogative of supervisor’s chairman Mike Steines whether the issue is even on the agenda next week.

Steines was the most non-committal of the supervisors the morning after the jail advisory committee. “I want to make some phone calls and have some conversations with individuals,” he said.

Willey said he thought the board wouldn’t be ready for another vote in March and should delay until August. “I did not get a lot of sleep last night,” Willey said Tuesday. “I could not shut my mind off from the meeting.”

McDevitt said the board should move forward. “The more I thought about it, what else can we do?” he asked. “We’ve kicked this can back and forth for two years. I think we’ve got a good plan.”

Construction and material costs are unlikely to go down, McDevitt argued. “I think we need to take it forward, and if not, we let it go, and we shut this down, and we live with it.”

The only time the state has shut down an Iowa jail in recent years was when the board of supervisors in Warren County failed to set a bond referendum for a new jail or renovations.

Each referendum vote costs the county money, too. The 2019 jail referendum cost about $13,500, according to Jackson County Auditor Alisa Smith.