Home Madison County Board votes against referendum on $13.5 million jail funding increase

County Board votes against referendum on $13.5 million jail funding increase

Artist's rendering of the jail consolidation South Tower project.

A question on whether to borrow an additional $13.5 million to fund the jail consolidation project will not appear on the April 4 ballot, as a County Board resolution to put that question to voters failed on a 21-14 vote late Thursday night.

It became clear in May 2022 that inflation and other factors would increase the cost of the approved six-story jail facility, and the approved allocation of over $150 million would be inadequate. Estimates at the time indicated the shortfall would be about $13.5 million. The County Board Black Caucus proposed a smaller, five-story facility coupled to criminal justice reform measures that would reduce the jail population and keep the project under budget. The County Board approved that plan but County Executive Joe Parisi vetoed it, leaving the shortfall in place.

However, new cost estimates are due to be revealed in March, and some on the County Board worry the gap might be more than $13.5 million by now.

“We have heard several people on the County Board say things along the lines of every month that goes by, (the jail will cost) millions of dollars more. Well, guess how many months have gone by since they initially said that they needed $13.5 million (more)? At least six to seven months,” Black Caucus member Dana Pellebon said in an interview after the meeting. “Now they’re also saying that the $13.5 million was based upon estimates in May of 2022. Well, chances are that amount is inflated from $13.5 million. It was already inflated literally two months after they voted on the previous amount. So to say that we’re going to put forward a referendum to cover the amount of the funding deficit for the consolidated jail plan for that six story for $13.5 million … that doesn’t make any sense.”

Board Chair Patrick Miles also spoke against the referendum on the grounds that the County Board members are elected to make those decisions.

“In my opinion, we should not be legislating by referendum,” he said after relinquishing the chair to Vice Chair April Kigeya so he could participate in the debate. “This issue is too nuanced and too complex to fairly capture in a referendum question. The question about a small portion of the cost leaves a very incomplete picture of the breadth of the matters we are seeking to address. We are elected to debate the issues and it is our responsibility to do that.”

Miles said he wouldn’t necessarily oppose an increase in funding to cover the increasing cost of the project, but wanted to know more before sending the question to referendum.

“If it’s not outrageously beyond our expectations, I’ll be introducing a resolution myself to authorize the (generalized obligation) bond to fill the gap,” he said.

Pellebon said she’d rather revisit a plan that would bring the entire project under budget rather than spend more.

“$13.5 million, $20 million, at what point do we say this is enough?” she said. “My stance, and I’m pretty sure the stance of my colleagues on the Black Caucus, our stance is pretty clear: we gave you a plan that was going to be under budget. And the JFA (Institute) report gave you plans to continue to reduce incarceration, so that we have the right size jail for our community. And even saying that feels off because there is no right size way to incarcerate people. So this whole idea as it stands is problematic.”

Dane County Sheriff Kalvin Barrett, like his predecessor Dave Mahoney, has said the conditions in the current jail are “inhumane” to the point of being unconstitutional, and held a press conference Wednesday urging passage of the referendum.

“There are 37 Dane County Board members, which means that there are 37 different narratives, 37 different ideas, 37 different groups of constituents,” Barrett said at that press conference. “I too agree with the words of our own Dane County Black Caucus who said less than 10 months ago that it’s difficult to make a decision with 37 different individuals. That’s why it needs to go to the people.”

Additional cost estimates are expected by the end of March, at which time additional borrowing or changes to the project will have to be approved by the County Board.