Five years have passed since a National Institute of Corrections analysis of the Kewaunee County Jail concluded that the facility needs to be replaced, and soon.
“They said, you know, we travel the country defending counties, defending county jails in their policies, facilities and what they do,” Sheriff Matt Joski said Tuesday (Feb. 9). “They said Kewaunee County is undefendable … What we are doing in Kewaunee County is undefendable.”
Joski led a presentation for the Kewaunee County Board reviewing the long-running effort to replace the jail, which stalled at the board’s previous meeting.
Supervisors voted 11-8 to spend $179,000 for the next phase of planning a new jail, estimated at $21 million, but that fell short of the two-thirds majority required because it involved a budget transfer.
The sheriff introduced the subject by playing a video prepared in 2019 to describe the issue.
To remind the board what’s at stake, Joski brought former members of the ad hoc Public Safety Facility Study Committee, as well as a state jail inspector, to address supervisors.
The jail is “falling apart below our feet, literally,” the sheriff said. “Your criminal justice system in Kewaunee is only as strong as the weakest link. The weakest link in the system is the jail … Every component of the criminal justice system is basically adjusting their decisions because of the weakness of this component.”
Nancy Thelen, regional coordinator of the state Department of Corrections Office of Detention Facilities, told the board she has been willing to work with Kewaunee County’s deficient jail because county officials have assured the state that efforts are being made to replace it.
The old jail has been “grandfathered in” and any renovation would have to bring the building up to current codes, but it is operating “two codes ago” with inadequate or no space for programming, recreation, kitchen and medical facilities, Thelen said.
“At some point we’re going to have to take a look at that and say when is enough enough on our side, because I have to consider safety, adequacy and fitness on behalf of the folks that are incarcerated,” she said. “At what point does that line get drawn? From my perspective, you’re at it.”
The state has the authority to condemn the jail, giving a county six months to fix the situation, but has only gone that far once in the state’s history, Thelen said.
“I don’t want to go down that road, I’m hoping we don’t have to go down that road,” she said. “I thought that with the committee forming that maybe we wouldn’t have to revisit that at all; I’d like for that not to be an option, but yes, it’s absolutely there.”
Former committee member Jeff Dorner said something needs to be done.
“I did a tour of the jail in 2019, and I’ve always been a proud citizen of Kewaunee County,” Dorner said. “When we got done walking through that jail, I said I’m ashamed to be a Kewaunee County citizen — That jail is in bad shape.”
Other study committee members Ann Kulhanek and John Pabich testified to the amount of study and detail that went into the group’s work.
Pabich said the courthouse itself will be due to be replaced within eight years. Pabich believes a complete law enforcement center is the best and least expensive long-term solution, even though the current estimate for that approach is $35 million.
“I am concerned we will look back and see it as an opportunity missed,” Pabich said.
Opponents of the jail project, who include County Board Chairman Dan Olson, are balking at the $21 million price tag for the jail and 911 dispatch center, as well as the estimated additional $1 million in annual operational costs for the facility, which would have 52-86 beds as opposed to 22 in the existing jail.
County Administrator Scott Feldt said the estimated cost to property taxpayers would be an additional $145 annually per $100,000 of property value.
But he added that interest rates are currently at a historic low, and construction costs are only going up.
“There will still be a day and time when we have to replace this facility,” Feldt said. “With interest rates and construction costs where they are, now is perhaps the most opportune time for a government to issue debt.”
Joski said “now is the time” for county leaders to act.
“The walls are crumbling, the roof is falling apart, plumbing, electrical — I mean, at what point do you just say, it’s done its job, it’s done its duty,” he said. “It’s like a vehicle with 300,000 miles on it. You can’t just keep putting tires on it. It’s time to switch out.”
The board took no action this month. Olson said only that he “will be in touch” with various committees regarding what the next steps might be.
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