Madison County to consider $18M jail bond issue proposal

News-DemocratSeptember 13, 2013 

— The plan to spend $18 million to renovate the Madison County Jail will go before the County Board next week now that it has the approval of the Finance Committee.

The committee voted Wednesday to approve a proposal to issue bonds for the jail renovation, according to committee Chairman Jack Minner.

During a joint committee meeting last month, officials discussed a needs assessment survey that showed the jail would not pass code inspection if it were built today. Constructed in 1980, the jail was designed for 100 prisoners and has since expanded to a capacity of 300.

Among the items on the to-do list: there are no sprinklers in the jail; the plumbing and electrical work is 35 years old; the roof has leaks around air-conditioning wells; the sliding doors burn through their motors two to six times a year; the infirmary no longer has space for a "sick cell" so ill inmates are returned to the cell block; the "sallyport" for bringing in prisoners has space for only one car, so police cars are often waiting in line or circling the block waiting for their turn, and other problems ranging from plumbing to a storage trailer on the parking lot holding food supplies.

The existing jail bonds are the county's only current debt, Minner said. Renewing those bonds brings the county about $6 million, but for the rest of the $18 million officials would need to issue new bonds.

Issuing jail bonds does not require a voter referendum, according to financial advisers from Stifel Nicolaus, because every county is required to have and maintain a jail. However, if 10 percent of Madison County's registered voters signed a petition against it, the question would have to go to a voter's referendum.

That's what has county Treasurer Kurt Prenzler concerned.

"Don't you think the 'public' should be put back into public finance?" he said. "Should the public have a say-so if their taxes will increase? This issue isn't about the need to borrow money. It's about getting public approval in borrowing money."

County Board Chairman Alan Dunstan has said the county does not yet know how the proposed bond issue would affect the tax rate because property assessment growth is not yet known. However, he said he intends to keep the county levy at no more than a 4 percent increase, regardless.

Minner said the jail bonds could actually help the county down the line in terms of its credit rating. The county has a AA credit rating largely because it has almost no debt, he said.

"With the shape the county's in, with all the billing paid for, with no debt except the jail and three to four months' operating capital available to us, it's the only reason we don't have a AAA rating," Minner said. "We don't owe anyone anything, we pay our bills, we are solid."

With the bond issue, Madison County could conceivably get that higher credit rating, though it is not guaranteed, Minner said. He said they would like to get it into next year's budget, as they believe interest rates are lower now than they will be in a few months.

At the joint committee meeting last week, some board members asked whether the county could simply pay for the jail renovation with its cash reserves. County Administrator Joe Parente said he would look into it, but was not sure it was legal to use that money for renovations.

The Finance Committee voted unanimously to send the bond issue to the full County Board, which meets next Wednesday. If approved, it will be posted for 30 days for public information and another 30 days for the bonds to be issued.

Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at edonald@bnd.com or 239-2507.

Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at edonald@bnd.com or 239-2507.