As a member of the Dane County Board, one of my most important responsibilities is to make sure taxpayer money is spent wisely. Dane County has an annual budget of almost 700 million dollars, and every one of them comes from taxpayers’ pockets.
Over the past several years, the county board has worked on a plan to renovate the county jail. At an estimated cost of $148 million, this will be the biggest construction project in the history of Dane County government.
The current Dane County jail is divided into three separate facilities. The oldest section of the jail is located on the top floors of the City County Building in downtown Madison. This part of the jail dates from the 1950s, and its interior looks like the movie Escape from Alcatraz, with lots of steel-barred cells. The minimum-security work-release jail, also known as the Ferris Center, is located outside of downtown Madison, near the Alliant Energy Center. The newest part of the jail is the Public Safety Building, commonly referred to as the PSB. The PSB, which was built in the 1990s, is located between the City County Building and the Dane County Courthouse.
The renovation project will close the City County Building Jail, close the Ferris Center, and consolidate all jail operations under one roof at the PSB. The county will build an addition to the PSB, on what is now a downtown parking lot. The interior of the current PSB will also be updated and reconfigured.
Some opponents of the jail renovation project say that we should “defund the police” and “derail the jail.” I believe that canceling the jail renovation would put the county government in serious financial risk.
The City County Building Jail is a dangerous firetrap. The antiquated cell doors have a tendency to jam, which could prove disastrous in an emergency. Last summer, an arsonist broke a ground floor window at the City County Building and threw a firebomb inside. Thankfully, the fire was soon extinguished, but next time we might not be so lucky. A major fire inside the City County Building Jail could kill dozens of people and cost the county many millions of dollars.
Moreover, the City County Building Jail is simply obsolete. Inmates can use the cell bars to hang themselves for suicide attempts. Deputies lack good sightlines into the cells, allowing inmates to hide all sorts of illicit activities. Under the “deliberate indifference” standard applied by the federal court system, ignoring these well-known problems could result in significant legal liability for the county.
For all these reasons, the jail renovation project needs to go forward. And in doing so, we must ensure that the taxpayer money invested in the project is spent wisely.
The county board just learned that Mead and Hunt, the consulting firm hired to help plan the renovation project, billed the county $428,900 over and above its contract. The consultants performed that work from June to September of last year, but only notified the county of it recently. On Thursday, Feb. 18, the county board will vote on whether to pay Mead and Hunt for their unauthorized charges. After researching this issue and talking with several county leaders, I have decided to vote no.
One fundamental principle of good fiscal management is that spending must be approved before the expense is incurred, except in rare emergencies. This was not an emergency.
Mead and Hunt might sue the county over this issue, but that’s why the county has a legal department. Refusing to pay the unauthorized $428,900 will show that the county government won’t tolerate financial mismanagement by consultants.
We need to renovate the county jail, but we need to be responsible about how we do it. The taxpayers have a right to accountability as to how county tax dollars are spent.
Tim Kiefer represents the village of Waunakee and part of the town of Westport on the Dane County Board of Supervisors. He can be reached at 608 358-7213 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.