New $301 million Jackson County jail construction can begin, but will it be big enough?

Jackson County legislators voted Tuesday to move forward with a $301 million jail project, ending a months long stalemate that delayed the start of construction.

The unanimous vote allows contractors J.E. Dunn Construction and Axiom Construction Group to lock in the cost of supplies and begin building a 1,000-bed facility in eastern Kansas City, with an eye toward completing construction in the final quarter of 2025.

Consultants had recommended a larger facility, but rising construction costs forced cutting back the size by 200 beds, county officials said.

But they stress that the facility is designed in a way that it allows for easy expansion later to house more county inmates. Also, it’s still possible that Kansas City or other local jurisdictions could build their own jails next to the new Jackson County Detention Center to save money.

Experts say it is inappropriate to mix those inmate populations in a single facility because county detainees are awaiting trial on felony charges. Municipal detainees are either awaiting trial or serving out their sentences on less-serious misdemeanor charges. That can create security concerns.

But there might be cost savings if they shared the cost of kitchen and laundry services with the county at the jail site, a former mobile home park at 7000 E. U.S. 40.

County Executive Frank White hailed the legislature’s approval as a great step forward in what has been a long process stretching back years.

“This detention center project is not only a milestone for our justice system but also an engine of economic growth and job creation,” he said in a prepared statement. “We’ve made a commitment to prioritize local hiring and partnering with diverse and minority-owned businesses to bring our vision of a safe, secure and rehabilitative facility to life.”

White’s quotes were from a joint statement with county legislators in a rare display of unity between White’s administration and the legislative branch.

“This facility will be built with safety and humanity in mind and I believe it will serve as a model for other communities looking to improve their correction infrastructure,” Daron McGee, chairman of the legislature, said. “I want to extend my gratitude to my colleagues on the legislature for keeping our community safe and I look forward to seeing the positive impact it will have on our community.”

The majority faction of legislators that McGee heads had been reluctant to move forward until they were satisfied with how the project was being financed. Six of the nine members are new to the legislature.

The previous legislature had overseen the jail’s planning for years, but the body held off on approving a final financing plan last fall and winter because the contractor, J.E. Dunn, had not established a guaranteed maximum price.

When Dunn and Axiom established that cost earlier this year, it was about $60 million higher than originally anticipated. The county had planned on spending $256.6 million for a 1,200-bed jail to replace the smaller, often-crowded 40-year-old detention center in downtown Kansas City. But soaring construction costs nationwide drove up the price.

White suggested that the legislature approve a smaller jail that could be expanded later at a cost of about $10 million for each additional 128-bed pod.

Legislators did not question that idea, but they were skeptical of the proposed financing plan and weeks went by as the deadline to lock in costs at the end of April came and went.

Legislators finally came to an agreement with White and last week gave County Administrator Troy Schulte the go ahead to borrow up to $262 million for the project. The rest of the principle would come from existing county revenue that was set aside for the project and proceeds from interest earned on the borrowed money..

The existing jail has 760 beds but a functional capacity of 549, consultants told the county in the midst of planning for a new detention center. Yet as many as 977 people had been crammed into it at times, with some detainees sleeping on cots in the gym while awaiting trial.

To meet future needs, the consultant estimated in January 2019 that a new jail would need 1,300 to 1,800 beds and cost between $230 million and $270 million.

The current eight-story, red-brick main jail opened downtown in April 1984 and was soon at capacity. At the insistence of the federal courts, a jail annex opened 15 years later and it, too, soon became full.

County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker worries that the county could be making the same mistake it did 40 years ago by letting cost considerations cause officials to build a smaller jail than needed.

“County officials have recently debated how big to make the county’s new jail,” she wrote in a blog post last month. “To me, it’s simple. When in doubt, defer to an expert. Nearly three years ago, the jail consultant concluded we need a bigger jail. So we need a bigger jail.”

Asked to comment on Tuesday’s decision, Baker’s spokesman Michael Mansur said, “I think we’ll stand on what she presented earlier.”

County officials believe the new two-level jail will be easier to staff and more secure than the current multi-level facility. Sheriff Darryl Forte’ said in a written statement that the new jail will be big enough to have room for the kind of “whole-person care services” that critics have said were not available in the existing jail. due to space limits.

Even the gymnasium has been converted to holding inmates.

“The need for a new detention center with services and programs that helps reduce recidivism and provides a humane and safe environment is proven to help reduce crime and promote neighborhood safety,” legislator Manny Abarca said.