Council wants strategic planning session to discuss $55 million plan

GREENFIELD — The Hancock County Council wants another meeting with local stakeholders before agreeing to build a new jail — a project that’s expected to cost taxpayers about $55 million.

The county’s board of commissioners this week pushed forward with plans to hold a referendum in May to ask voters whether they support borrowing money to fund the project. The board scheduled the series of public hearings required before the question can officially be put on the ballot.

But when the commissioners came before the county council seeking a show of support, they again got pushback from some of their colleagues.

Some council members say they still aren’t sold on the plan or its multi-million dollar price tag. Instead, they’d like to hold one more strategic planning session and invite stakeholders in the local criminal justice system to explore additional options to alleviating jail overcrowding, something other than constructing a new facility.

Commissioner John Jessup and Brad Armstrong came to the council meeting Wednesday to push for the construction project, this time bringing along a nearly 50-page packet detailing nine potential financing options.

For roughly 90 minutes, they fielded questions from council members and debated the best way to proceed. The discussion, heated at times, ended with Councilman Jim Shelby proposing the two boards hold a joint meeting, mediated by a third-party consultant.

Shelby said he wants county leaders to explore alternatives to incarceration –- mental health treatment programs, primarily, he said –- that could decrease the jail population at a lesser cost, and he wants those options to be thoroughly discussed before taking the proposal to voters.

If nothing fruitful comes from the meeting, suggesting the $55 million construction plan is the only available option, he’ll sign on in support, Shelby said.

Local officials have debated for months how to handle overcrowding at the county’s jail, which is built for 157 people but regularly houses a population of more than 180. Earlier this year, a study found the best solution is building a new, bigger jail. It would also address space and facility issues at six other county departments, creating an entire criminal justice complex shuffling various departments among county-owned buildings.

The commissioners say the county will have to borrow money to fund the construction. Paying back the loan would hike property taxes by up to $100 annually for a $100,000 home, according to early estimates.

Thirty members of the public attended a hearing last week, with many voicing support for the complex. No one came to the podium during the hearing to say they disagreed with the plan.

The council’s strategic planning meeting has not been scheduled. Shelby and Councilman Randy Sorrell agreed to search for a consultant who could help facilitate the discussion. A meeting date will be selected after that consultant is hired.

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Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or cvanoverberghe@greenfieldreporter.com.