I-Team 8

Elected officials’ dispute holds up Boone County Jail expansion

LEBANON, Ind. (WISH) — The estimated price to expand the 30-year-old jail in Boone County is $58 million, and elected officials are arguing whether to expand now or pay millions more later.

Commissioned by County Commissioners, the artist renderings of the expansion of the jail detail more bed space for mental health services, additional juvenile probation offices, and more office and lab space for investigations. The expansion would almost double the square footage of the jail, something that County Commissioner Tom Santelli says is long overdue.  

“Having the mental health aspect of this is so critical, and we are hamstrung without being able to do this project” Santelli said.  

The debate is over money. The County Council has to approve the funding, which includes a tax increase in the form of a local jail income tax.

Else Nieshalla, the council president, wrote a letter to a local newspaper and said the council needs more information before making taking a vote.

Commissioners presented the jail project almost 18 months ago, and Santelli says it’s time to act. 

“We are trying to confirm our numbers, but if interest rates hit 5% and Else would like to push this project back to 2023 or 2024, it would add about $31 million in additional costs,” Santelli said. 

According to records uncovered by I-Team 8, a motion had been in front of the County Council to kill the project. The motion failed, but the sentiment toward the project did not.

When the sheriff moved to this jail, from the old jail on the county square in 1992, the facility had less than 20 inmates.

Today, the average inmate count exceeds 100. 

Commissioner Santelli said, “We have more violence, sexual offenses with our juveniles now then with adults, which is significant, and we just had the execution-style murder in Lebanon where three people were killed.”

Councilor Nieshalla has said in meetings that she will not vote on the jail expansion project anytime.

Before Monday’s story aired, I-Team 8 reached out to Nieshalla. She responded with a statement after the story aired.

“I have always shared the Commissioners’ desire to make safety in Boone County priority one. Their desire to push forward a project with many unanswered questions, however, is one I do not share, especially when that project requires a tax increase. If the Commissioners’ proposed solution was a slam dunk option or the only option to consider, it would have been easy to move forward. The remaining open items to evaluate for the sake of Boone County taxpayers include: 1) the forthcoming report and recommendations from the Boone County Justice Commission, 2) the potential impact of transformational efforts at the state level regarding criminal justice, and 3) the analysis of a pending, monumental economic development announcement that could bring a significant increase in tax revenues to our county, for which it would be incumbent upon us to evaluate for the potential of eliminating or substantially reducing the need for a tax increase.

“As we go through this public process of evaluating the best way forward on the Boone County Jail expansion and Justice Center Project, the Council is completing its due diligence. I hold in highest regard the office each Council Member fills, serving in the fiduciary roles we have been charged to carry out by our constituents.”

Elise M. Nieshalla, president, Boone County Council