Expensive problems have a nasty habit of growing more costly as time passes, and the Allen County Jail is a problem.
The downtown building is overcrowded and bursting at its nearly 40-year-old seams, and the aging brick structure isn't safe, Sheriff David Gladieux says. It's not staffed adequately, and Gladieux has threatened to close sections of the jail to operate safely with fewer confinement officers.
Allen County Commissioner Rich Beck told Fort Wayne Rotary Club members Monday that he expects the county to lose a federal lawsuit challenging conditions including overcrowding inside the jail.
There have been discussions about whether a confinement facility even belongs downtown, where nearby swaths are being snapped up and redeveloped into parks and spaces for trendy businesses and condos.
What to do?
There are options – all of them pricey – and elected officials who must convince taxpayers to foot the bill are right to consider them now.
“I think it's inevitable that we're going to have to do something,” Commissioner Nelson Peters said last week.
One option: adding to the 741-bed facility. That would cost at least $21 million, according to a study obtained by The Journal Gazette's Jamie Duffy, and include expanding the jail to house 236 more beds.
That's not enough, argues Elevatus – an architectural firm that has designed dozens of jails and conducted the study. At least 1,500 beds are needed, the report says.
The jail now typically houses more than 800 inmates.
Building a new jail – away from downtown and with modern construction designed to limit drug trafficking and communication among inmates – would provide space for more beds and, possibly, facilities for mental health or substance abuse treatment, features that Gladieux and candidates to replace him have said they support.
Those things don't come cheap. The estimated cost – depending on what's included, where it would be built and other variables – ranges from $150 million to about $400 million.
Important questions about what should be included in such an expansive project and whether more focus should be given to keeping people out of jail should, of course, also be carefully considered.
But it's smart to begin efforts to answer those questions now, especially if Beck is right and a judge sides with inmates in the lawsuit. That could force changes at the jail before the county is ready.
Any publicly funded project with a hefty price tag is likely to be met with skepticism. County leaders can begin working to allay those concerns, too.
How to pay for whatever is needed is among the most important questions surrounding the jail, and Peters has floated using local income tax – a portion of which can be spent on public safety – as a possibility. He said a 0.2% tax could raise $20 million annually in Allen County.
That could be a tough pitch in tax-conscious Allen County, but a move by Fort Wayne officials in 2017 to use city local income tax funding for riverfront development provides a model for working with residents to find solutions.
Former Councilman John Crawford, a Republican, led a six-month process that included a seminar on tax alternatives, public testimony and much debate. The result was greater public support and, ultimately, a City Council vote to raise the tax.
“I don't think the decision could have gone much better,” Crawford said at the time.
There's no time like the present to start learning more about the future of the Allen County Jail and keep residents informed about the possible effects of that future on their wallets.