Voters to decide on jail Tuesday

ALPENA — The Alpena County Jail is old, has exceeded its useful life and no longer can meet many regulations established by the Michigan Department of Corrections.

On Tuesday, voters will vote on a one-mill ballot proposal that, if approved will cover the cost of the construction of a new jail on county owned land between the airport and Sportsmen’s Drive.

Alpena County Sheriff Steve Kieliszewski said if a new jail isn’t built soon the cost to maintain and fix the current one will continue to climb and citations, as well as liability for the county, will continue to mount.

The jail was built in 1956 and there were a pair of additions added later. A gymnasium was built in the 1970s and four additional cells in the 1980s.

Kieliszewski said despite the effort of the building and maintenance department, the structural and operational shortfalls of the jail have nearly reached the point of no return and the conditions are deteriorating quickly.

He said the way the old jail is built doesn’t allow for many improvements, especially new technology that can help protect staff, inmates and the community. Kieliszewski said there are mold and leak issues, as well as electrical and plumbing problems that won’t be easy to fix and would be very costly if they were done. He said some of the toilet and sinks, or parts for them, cost a lot to replace because they aren’t produced any longer. He said one of the toilets costs about $3,000 to have custom made.

“It’s old and it’s dilapidated,” he said. “There are heating and ventilation issues, as well as structural issues that are serious.”

Kieliszewski said the brick on the building is cracking and replacement would be difficult because it would need to be torn down to the foundation below the basement. He said there is also rerod inside the concrete brick walls that would make doing any exterior wall repairs or replacement difficult and expensive.

“We have that in there to prevent inmates from escaping,” Kieliszewski said. “Doing the work that is needed to it would be costly and it would be better to start new.”

Many of the regulations in place when the jail was built have been changed and because of the current layout, several can’t and won’t be able to be met.

Kieliszewski said the jail is basically two boxes. Cells are in one and correction staff another. State law requires law enforcement to have officers in direct sight and sound of all inmates being housed. He said that is impossible at the current facility and cameras and speakers are utilized to monitor the prisoners, but that does not comply with state requirements.

“Doing it this way creates all sort of problems,” he said.

Kieliszewski said the new jail would consist of a central hub where corrections officers work and all of the cells would circle it, making it easy for staff to monitor all of the inmates.

Another state law requires jails to separate inmates based on their threat level. Kieliszewski said there are three classifications, maximum, medium and minimum security. He said each must be housed separate of the others, but it is impossible to do because of the lack of space. There also are smaller cells which the state does not want the county to use, but it is forced to do so.

“We aren’t supposed to intermingle them, but we are forced to intermingle medium and minimum security inmates because we have to,” Kieliszewski said. “We were found not in compliance during the last inspection, but there really isn’t anything we can do about it and will have to continue doing it.”

The jail committee sorted through many proposed sites and ultimately selected the site near the airport. Kieliszewaski said the land was owned by the county and saved taxpayers money from having to purchase property and add utility infrastructure.

He said the location is ideal because it is centrally located in the county and allows for quicker response to outlying areas. He said it also prevents deputies from having to drive down busy city streets where there are many vehicles and pedestrians. He said there also is room for future expansion for things like the courthouse, should the county choose to do it one day.

If the millage passes, Kieliszewski said the old jail and property in the city likely would be sold, but it would be up to the board of commissioners to determine what to do with the proceeds. He said he suspects the money would be used toward the jail, or the office in some way.

The money from the millage will help to cover the cost of additional corrections officers. Kieliszewski said the department has been working shorthanded for some time and additional employees are badly needed. The money left over after the bond payment is made each year will be used to pay for the additional staff.

Over the course of the 20 years of the millage about $15.5 million could be collected for the project. The cost to a property owner is about $1 per $1,000 on the taxable value of a person’s house, so a house with a taxable value of $50,000 would pay an additional $50 a year.

Kieliszewski said if the millage fails, there is a Plan B and it will be to see what went wrong and see why voters didn’t support the proposal. He said a new proposal could be made and another millage request could be made again. As to what would happen to the current facility, Kieliszewski said operations likely would continue as they do now, more citations from the state would be issued, and the building would continue to deteriorate. He said delaying building a new jail could cost residents more later.

“We have identified some major issues with the building and we either build a new one, or the liability will continue to go up,” he said. “We can’t keep putting Band Aids on bad situations. I expect building and material costs to continue to rise, so instead of asking for about $1 million a year now, it could be $2 million or $3 million later. We need a new jail as soon as possible and the sooner we do it, the cheaper it will be.”

The election is Nov. 7.

Steve Schulwitz can be reached via email at sschulwitz@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5689. Follow Steve on Twitter ss_alpenanews.