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If Jackson County legislators don’t act today, the new jail price will spike by millions

Since Jackson County broke ground on a new jail in September very little work has been done.
Sam Zeff
Since Jackson County broke ground on a new jail in September very little work has been done.

The legislature must either lock in the price before its deadline, build a smaller jail or ask voters to approve a tax to cover higher costs.

The Jackson County Legislature has to act on funding a new jail on Monday to lock in the price at $301 million.

If legislators fail to approve the plan, the county faces a “significant cost increase,” said County Administrator Troy Schulte. The cost could spike immediately by $10 million — or even higher, depending on what some of the national contractors decide to do.

“A lot of what you’re buying isn’t made in Kansas City,” Schulte told KCUR.

J.E. Dunn, the Kansas City-based general contractor, can hold the line on costs. But Schulte said there is only one company in America that makes jail beds and only a handful that can install jail security like doors and the county has little, if any, room to negotiate.

The cost of labor might also skyrocket as organized labor seems to be running out of patience.

“Any failure to advance this project in a unified manner will be seen and messaged clearly to our members as a move against organized labor and a sign of dysfunction,” the Greater Kansas City Building & Construction Trades Council warned in a letter to legislators last week.

If the price goes up, the Legislature has two options. First, it can get voters to approve a new, dedicated tax — which would take time and most likely push the cost of the project even higher. While some legislators are fine with a tax hike, County Executive Frank White is opposed.

The second option is to reduce the size of the new jail. For $301 million now, the county would get a 1,000 bed facility. But if they wait and the cost jumps by $10 million, it will cover about 250 fewer beds, said Schulte.

Several studies have suggested that Jackson County will need a jail with a 1,200-bed capacity in the coming years.

Legislator Jeanie Lauer sees the urgency.

“Let’s just get started,” she urged her colleagues at last week’s meeting.

The legislature should “not wait for some sign that says you’re going to have everything you need all at one time,” she said.

Lauer suggested that the county look at this as a three- or four-year project. The jail is designed for easy expansion.

A smaller facility would recreate one of the existing jail’s problems — overcrowding. The dilapidated current facility has about 850 beds.

Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker worries about the Justice Department stepping in if overcrowding remains an issue.

“Every time there’s been expansion at our current jail facility is because of a federal consent decree,” she testified last week. “So, we’re on the heels of that.”

You deserve to know what your taxpayer dollars are paying for and what public officials are doing on your behalf – I’ll work to report on irresponsible government spending in the Kansas City area and shed light on controversies that slow government down. And when you hear my voice in the morning, you know you’re getting everything you need to start your day. Email me at sam@kcur.org, find me on Twitter @samzeff or call me at 816-235-5004.
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