Group starts petition for referendum on jail renovations

News-DemocratOctober 31, 2013 

— Among the revelers at Thursday night's Halloween Parade were people circulating a petition to force a referendum on the proposed Madison County Jail renovation.

Bonds on Ballot, a grassroots group supported by Madison County Treasurer Kurt Prenzler, circulated on Main Street prior to the annual Halloween parade asking people to sign a petition for a referendum on the $18 million renovation project.

The County Board placed the sale of bonds to finance the renovation on display at its October meeting. The final County Board vote will take place in November. But if the petition gathers 10 percent of registered voters' signatures, or approximately 17,100, it will have to go to a voter referendum in the spring.

"I support the bond issue being placed on the ballot so voters can have a say on whether the county should go into debt and increase property taxes," Prenzler said. "The effort is challenging and there is only about a short window for those signatures to be collected. Hundreds of people willing to collect 20-30 signatures are going to have to step forward if the effort is going to be successful."

County Board Chairman Alan Dunstan said he had no problem with the petitioners seeking signatures, though he felt the parade was not the right place for it. However, he takes issue with the petitioners' stance that the county should pay for the jail renovation out of its cash reserve instead of borrowing it.

All but $26 million is in restricted funds that cannot be used for this purpose, Dunstan said. There are other capital projects pending, including work at the old courthouse, that will cost at least $9 million of reserve funds over the next few years, and also keeps six months' operating funds in reserve, Dunstan said.

"This has gone through all the committees, building and finance included," Dunstan said. "We cannot use the reserves ... We've had our auditor at the meetings, telling us what we can and cannot use. When you spend $9 million on other projects, you don't have $18 million to do the jail renovation."

Dunstan said the difference between this project and others that have come up in the past is that the county is required to have and maintain a jail. He said he is afraid eventually the state is going to land on the county with a list of required renovations, and it will cost a lot more -- but closing the jail is not an option.

"You have to do the right thing, and the right thing is to repair the jail. It doesn't have a sprinkler system. How much of a liability is it?" Dunstan said. "I don't like spending $18 million on a jail project, but I wouldn't consider spending it if I didn't think it was necessary."

But former prosecutor Don Weber, spokesman for Bonds on Ballot, said it isn't a law enforcement issue, but a funding issue. "They want a $60,000-per-room upgrade for every inmate in the jail. Do we really need a Waldorf-Astoria jail?" Weber said. "Nobody has put more people in the county jail than I have as a prosecutor."

Weber said he still believes if renovations are needed, they should be funded from the reserves instead of a bond issue. "But the issue isn't whether we should make these improvements now or later, it's 'are we going to let the voters decide or let the politicians decide?'" Weber said.

If the petition drive is successful, the referendum will be placed on the March ballot. But Dunstan said he's not confident it would pass if it went on the ballot.

"It's not a very romantic issue," Dunstan said. "But I haven't found a board member yet, Democrat or Republican, who doesn't think the jail needs to be renovated."

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

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