Touring the Mills County Jail

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By Joel Stevens, Associate Editor

A group of Mills County voters spent an afternoon in jail Tuesday. The tour of the Mills County Jail was part of day-long schedule of events by the Law Enforcement Center Planning Committee to make voters aware of just how antiquated the current jail is as voters head into the Aug. 7 special election to decide the $6.4 million bond issue to build a new facility.

The tour, which followed a presentation by the committee at the Glenwood Senior Center, was sandwiched around a day of events at the jail that began with Glenwood Area Chamber of Commerce Coffee in the morning and concluded with an open house Tuesday evening with hot dogs and refreshments. At the afternoon presentation, the committee gave an overview of the current jail’s inadequacy and the proposal for a new 17,969 square law enforcement center (LEC) that would house the sheriff’s office and the jail.

Mills County Sheriff Gene Goos was at the presentation. He painted a grim picture of the current 97-year old jail.

“The liability issue is huge for the county,” he said. “Public safety, us walking the prisoners back and forth to court, is huge.” Goos went on to refer to a 2007 escape of prisoner right out the jail front door when seeing a judge. “He overpowered a jailer and escaped,” Goos said. “That’s a liability and a safety issue. The safety of county employees, the deputies, the troopers, the officers who come through here is horrendous.”

The county’s current jail was built in 1915 and is among the oldest in Iowa. The 13-bed facility does not meet modern jail standards for safety and ADA compliance and has been recommended for replacement since 1992. The Law Enforcement Center Planning Committee, made up of nine county residents appointed by the Mills County Board of Supervisors, reviewed the current jail and recommended building a new facility on a parcel of land in Glenwood adjacent the county engineering building on Railroad Avenue. A preliminary floor plan calls for a 10,365 square foot corrections wing and 5,954 additional square feet for sheriff’s offices and administration. The state-of-the-art facility would feature minimum and maximum security housing units for men and women and a vehicular sallyport for enclosed prisoner transfer as well as space for administrative separations and special needs prisoners.

Committee member Marjean Sargent said Tuesday’s presentation and the jail tours could go a long way in getting the word out on the need for the bond. “We need a 60 percent vote to pass so these (information sessions) are very essential to that,” she said.

“We haven’t had very good turnouts so we’ve ask everyone that comes to the meeting that is willing, to talk to their friends and families and their neighbors and co-workers to please vote yes. That is how we have to get it out.”

The LEC project cost is estimated at $6.264 million with the additional money going to financing the general obligation bond over 20 years. If passed, the bond issue would raise the county property tax levy approximately 52 cents per $1,000 of taxable valuation. Mills County last passed a general obligation bond in 1959 for construction of the county courthouse. Sargent isn’t sure if that hurts or helps the LEC cause.

“We’re pretty fiscally conservative around here and I understand that. It’s just when infrastructure needs to be built, it needs to be built,“ Sargent said.

If built, the new facility would also require an additional six staff. Mills County Auditor Carol Robertson said the new jail could actually cut some of the current jail’s expenses in the long run.

“Savings could come in increasing the (jail) capacity to house other county’s prisoners and not having to transport out female prisoners,” Robertson said.

Mills County’s current jail can house up to 13 prisoners but no females. They must be transported to and housed in another county with Mills County picking up the tab. With anticipated population growth and the projected 2014 opening of the Highway 34 Bridge, Goos sees building the LEC now as getting ahead of the curve.

“The new facility could be expanded to 50 beds and probably more if need be,” he said. “I hope the sessions have been helpful is explaining the need is right now. People just need to get out and spread the word and vote for it.”