Officials move jail project forward

Commissioners asking voters for input, putting question on May ballot

GREENFIELD — The county commissioners have agreed to ask voters in May whether they support building a new criminal justice complex and paying for the project with money funded by an increase in property taxes.

Following a nearly four-hour long public hearing Tuesday night, the three-member board voted to put the issue on the ballot, allowing residents to decide the fate of the proposed $55 million project.

For months, officials have been debating how to accommodate a growing inmate population at the Hancock County Jail, which consistently houses more inmates than the 157 it was designed to hold.

Last April, a study found the best solution is building a new and larger facility designed to meet the county’s needs for the next 20 years.

The proposal has been heavily debated, with some county officials wondering whether it’s the best option given the hefty price tag.

Now, before the question is put on the ballot, 500 registered voters or property owners must sign a petition to launch a remonstrance process. The commissioners say they’ll be the ones asking for signatures to ensure every voter gets a chance to weigh in on the project. Without the 500 signatures, the bond process can move forward without a referendum, according to state law.

About 60 residents gathered Tuesday for the second of two public hearings the commissioners were required to conduct.

Representatives from Indianapolis-based consultant firm RQAW and the county’s financial consultants, Ice Miller, gave brief presentations about the proposed project and how much it will cost taxpayers before the commissioners fielded questions from community members.

Early estimates show the $55 million project would increase taxes on a $100,000 home by about $45. A $200,000 home would cost about $133 more.

Primarily, residents wanted to know if cheaper constructions options had been vetted and if local leaders had explored alternatives to incarceration, ways to treat addiction and keep people out of the jail.

Former Hancock County Sheriff Nick Gulling told the board he sees the construction of a new jail as “an opportunity to make a difference in the community.” Any new building that’s constructed must come with plans to keep inmates from returning, he said.

Gulling wants to see an emphasis placed on community corrections-style rehabilitation programs, treating mental health issues and addictions and educating people, he said.

“We need to stop warehousing inmates,” Gulling said. “We need to do something with them. They are a captivated audience.”

Members of the Hancock County Council, who attended the meeting and dominated the conversation for much of the night, echoed those same sentiments.

Council members Kent Fisk and Jim Shelby spoke Tuesday to say they, too, believe shifting focus to treatment programs could decrease the jail population at a lesser cost.

The council and the commissioners will conduct a joint strategic planning meeting following the regularly scheduled commissioner’s meeting Tuesday in the courthouse annex.

The meeting will be mediated by a third-party consultant and will be open to the public, though no public comment will be taken, officials said.

In the meantime, the commissioners — who believe building a new jail is the only solution — will continue to push the project forward, they said.

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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.