2012-06-20 / Front Page

Cell-a-bration!

Jail bid awarded after 9 years
BY ERIC LEVINE
Editor

The long and bumpy road for the jail project that began with a 254-bed proposal that commissioners rejected, was scaled-back to a 200-bed project that voters shot down, changed in sizes and prices over the years, and even took a side-trip to an empty supermarket, is finally signed, sealed and delivered.

Well, almost. The county must still close on the two Rural Development loans totaling $8 million.

But last week’s 5-2 vote to award the contract to low bidder Booms Construction of Bad Axe for $6,900,000 was a milestone. The total cost, including non-contruction costs such as fees for the architect and bond counsel, is expected to push the price tag closer to $8 million.

Commissioners John Merriman and Jamie Daws voted against the resolution, as they have done consistently - Daws because she says her constituents are against the project, and Merriman because the cost exceeds the first Rural Development loan of $5 million.

Groundbreaking will be scheduled after the loan closing on June 29, probably within 60 days.

That’s when construction will begin on the project that’s been center-stage for more than nine years, and has shrunk from the original plan for a 54,000 square foot stand alone jail to the final blueprints for a 19,000 square foot, two-story addition that will contain 64 beds, a new entrance to the sheriff department, booking and visitation areas, administrative offices, holding cells, sally port, etc.

When the new two-story wing is com- pleted in about a year, crews will begin phase 2 - major renovations to the existing jail that include converting the 52-man dormitory-style cell to smaller cells to address health, safety and security concerns that have been a major driving force for the project since February 2003.

That’s the month and year when Sheriff Virgil Strickler first presented the idea of building a new jail to the board of commissioners.

Strickler pushed for the project over the next five years, but retired in December 2008 without a successful conclusion.

“I knew it would happen sooner or later,” Strickler said told the News last week after the bid was awarded.

“Nine years is quite a while. It happens...

I think the main thing is they’re taking care of the problems for the workers’ safety,” he said.

Strickler’s initial idea for a 54,000 square foot, 254-bed, $12.5 million stand alone jail failed to gain the approval of the commission, even though it carried the recommendation of a boardappointed citizens’ jail study committee that took a year to study the jail and concluded the new facility was necessary. The committee’s recommendation came in April 2005.

By Jan. 2006 commissioners had still not made a decision and were warned by the architect that the price of the 254-bed lock up facility had risen to $16.4 million and would continue to increase because of inflation. Commissioners were also considering a smaller, 165-bed addition estimated to cost $6-7 million.

In February 2006, on a 4-3 vote, commissioners decided against moving forward with the larger project and by the end of March were forming a new committee of county officials to look into building a 140-150 bed addition.

In August 2006, the board approved $11,000 for the architect to prepare plans for a possible 160-bed addition with an estimated cost of $11.25 million.

By early October, commissioners were looking at two plans: The 160-bed addition and renovations to the existing facility now estimated at $14.25 million, and a 200-bed addition and renovations for $16.9 million.

The following April, 2007, commissioners settled on the 200-bed project with a cap of $16.6 million, and in July, the board published a notice of intent to sell bonds, triggering a 45-day period for voters to petition for a referendum.

And petition they did. Sandusky attorney and candidate for district court judge Dennis Reid spearheaded the petition drive, and by mid-September had collected more than enough signatures to demand an election.

The jail bond proposal was put on the ballot in the 2008 August Primary, where it was soundly defeated by 73 percent of the voters.

Strickler retired that December, and his successor, Garry Biniecki - Strickler’s undersheriff - was sworn into office in January after being elected in November.

In February 2009, Biniecki unveiled his department’s plan for a new, scaled-down jail project - a 64-bed addition and renovations that would cost an estimated $4.5 million.

That September, the county published its notice to sell $5 million in bonds to finance the project. And the 45-day referendum period passed in November without a petition being filed.

But it would take another year - until November 2010 - before Rural Development approved the county’s application for a $5 million loan.

Contractor bids were solicited, and when they were opened the end of November, construction and renovation prices came in around $6.2 million, and non-construction expenses pushed the total to more than $7 million - way above what the county could afford.

The project went back to the drawing board, with officials looking for ways to cut costs. In the meantime, commissioners considered taking out a second Rural Development loan, for $3 million.

But in January 2011, commissioners failed to approve the resolution to publish a notice of intent to sell the additional $3 million in bonds. The expansion and renovation project was seemingly dead.

Commissioners said they wanted to focus on a less expensive fix that would address health and safety issues without the two story addition.

By March, officials were considering three options with a wide range of prices: $250,000 to just fix security problems in the jail; $2.5 million to address security issues and also convert the 52-man cell to smaller cells; and $8 million for the whole ball of wax - the addition and the retrofit - which meant applying for the second loan of $3 million.

Then came the shocker. In May 2011, commissioners toured the empty Farmer Jack’s building in Sandusky’s Kmart shopping center, with the idea of buying the old supermarket along with some adjoining buildings, as a possible location for a new jail.

The idea fizzled in August, when commissioners learned that the shopping center owners wouldn’t sell the property for a jail.

Officials then refocused on the three options, and, in November, commissioners vote to apply for the second loan of $3 million.

Last January, the county published the notice of intent for the bond issue, and again, the 45-day referendum period expired without a petition being filed.

Rural Development approved the additional $3 million in March, and the county advertised for bids in early May.

Ten contractors submitted bids, and when the documents were opened May 31, the lower bidder was Booms.

After receiving assurances from the architect and the administrator that the bid was complete, Booms was awarded the contract last week.

The county intends to pay off the bonds by renting beds for federal prisoners.

When the project is done, the number of beds will increase from 119 to 165, with 20 beds lost when the dormitory cell is eliminated.

“I think the biggest thing I’d like to point out is we’ll still be using the 1955 building, but in some other capacity,” said Biniecki.

“We’ll still be using every inch of what we have around here. That’s what I think is important with this project.”

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