The Boone County Council and the Boone County Commissioners failed to reach a consensus on a proposed justice center project after publicly discussing the matter for the first time. A majority of council members said during a Sept. 14 council meeting that they would need more than six weeks to analyze the project’s scope and cost, but commissioners say the county would pay millions more if the council does not approve the project by Oct. 31.
Boone County officials are considering a justice center that is estimated to cost between $45 million and $50 million. It would include the expansion of the county jail and allow multiple county departments to move to the larger center. It would add at least 125 beds, meeting a need identified by a recent jail feasibility study.
Boone County Sheriff Mike Nielsen envisions the project as a way to reduce recidivism rates by providing more services to county residents, including those on probation or who are in community corrections or incarcerated.
During the meeting, commissioners and officials involved in the project’s initial phase gave a presentation regarding the scope and expected costs, the first such public presentation the council has heard regarding the project. The commissioners, who oversee county facilities, have claimed the council, which oversees the town’s finances, for months had stymied commissioners’ efforts to add a presentation to the council’s agenda, despite having private conversations about the project at the same time. That the council was considering the project privately without having heard a formal presentation and discussing it publicly was a transparency issue, Tom Santelli, president of the commissioners, said prior to the meeting.
During a special meeting a week before the Sept. 14 meeting, the council voted to establish a commission to research and investigate a need for the justice center.
“Like any decision involving the hard-earned money of our taxpayers, we are obligated to do our due diligence prior to funding a project,” Boone County Council President Elise Nieshalla said, reading a statement during the meeting.
Council members expect the commission, whose members the council had yet to name as of Sept. 14, to deliberate for months, possibly into 2022. Most members say the scoping phase had yet to be completed and that they needed more time to consider the project. Commissioners expect the project’s scoping phase to conclude in October or November. A presentation is expected at the end of the scoping phase, when the council will be told of guaranteed budgets and financing terms. But the commissioners and council member Jennifer Hostetter, who has worked with the commissioners on the scoping committee since February, questioned a need for the commission, arguing the scoping committee has provided enough information regarding all aspects of the project for the council to make an informed decision by Oct. 31.
But the commissioners are concerned by the council’s expected timetable because they say interest rates are at record lows and are expected to rise, meaning the longer the project waits for approval, the more money the county would have to pay during the life of the bond that would be used to pay for the project. The bond would likely be paid for by a local income tax increase of 0.02 percent, council attorney Chou-il Lee said. Commissioners say a slight increase would mean the county would pay millions more.
“We are talking about a potential cost to the taxpayers of $10 (million) to $15 million if we don’t move ahead,” Boone County Commissioner Jeff Wolfe said. “That’s interest rate costs. That’s carrying costs. That’s the cost of added construction costs. That’s the cost of added bond costs. There are so many costs involved in that, that are going to increase the cost of this project.”
State law states the council has until Oct. 31 to approve the change to the local income tax if it is to be implemented on Jan. 1, 2022. If the council misses the deadline, the change would not be implemented until the following fall, officials say.
But Nieshalla said the council needed to be sure what exactly it was financing.
“There’s no crystal ball,” Nieshalla said. “But as it pertains to interest rates, yes, there are indications that they are going to go up, but are they going to go up by a full percentage point? From everything that I read, that’s unlikely. I am hearing that there could be a quarter percent increase, perhaps next summer. Again, I don’t know for sure, but that would be about $1.5 million over the course of the life of the bond. And to me, that’s an acceptable amount of risk with a project of this size and scope to continue on with that four- to-five month scoping process before we go further. We need to have that information.”
Hostetter repeatedly asked other council members why they wouldn’t commit to finding answers to whatever outstanding questions they had about the project so that the council could approve it before the Oct. 31 deadline. Council members John Riner and Aaron Williams told her the timetable would be “aggressive.”