County Sheriffs Face Local Obstacles In Replacing Aging Jails

Mar 17, 2017

County governments are responsible for building regional police stations and jails.   But when those buildings get too old, there may be obstacles to getting them replaced.

Back in the 1960s, Ogle County built its current jail. About 10 years later, Lee County followed suit.  These buildings have served their purpose, but Ogle County Sheriff Brian VanVickle says keeping the facility running has become increasingly difficult.

“Toilets, sinks, gates, things of that nature, aren’t readily available anymore, so when one of them fails, which they do regularly, we have to go out and actually have it fabricated," he says. 

Not only does this mean more expensive repairs, but less time spent on other tasks.

“...probably in the neighborhood of between 30 and 40 hours a week just on maintenance alone, so it’s at the point where the jail has outlived its usefulness," VanVickle says.

Lee County Sheriff John Simonton says the jail is directly above his office.  He faces similar issues with maintenance, but says the facility also faces leakages on a regular basis.

The Lee County Sheriff's office. The Jail is on the second floor.
Credit Chase Cavanaugh/WNIJ

“It’s not just water leaks, it’s sewage leaks, it’s rainwater from the roof.  We have no ventilation in the jail.  We have not complied with the Illinois jail standard inspections by the Department of Corrections for the last ten years.”

Thus both counties are requesting new jails in order to meet modern regulations and ensure adequate capacity.  Both sheriffs offices have unveiled plans for these replacements and held informational meetings to inform the public about each new design.  And while they say the public has generally been accepting of the need for new jails, there are reservations about specific details. 

In Ogle County’s case, it’s a matter of location.  The original jail was built next to the city courthouse, and had a basement door allowing easy transfer of prisoners to court and back.  However, the county built a new judicial center in the 90s.  VanVickle says that means shuttling them across the street. 

“The issue becomes a couple days a week we typically have a very heavy court call for us, which is usually 20 to 30 inmates in the morning.  Loading them up in a van and taking them across the street does take some time.  Being able to basically walk them through will save them a significant amount of time and it will save a significant amount of labor as well.” 

Conceptual drawing of Ogle County's new jail in Oregon.

However, that means locating the jail at South Sixth Street on Oregon, which some residents view as an eyesore.  Furthermore, the connection to the courthouse requires a sally-port, which would close the road.  

Despite these concerns, the project has a secure source of funding in tailing fees which is what people pay to dump waste in the local landfill. 

Simonton says unlike Ogle County, Lee County doesn’t have any issues with inmate transfer.

“We have what we call a tube, so we can elevate them up to the next floor and walk across the tube into the new courthouse and they never go outside.  So really, we’ve eliminated almost all security concerns.”

Their new jail would be built on the south end of the current facility’s parking lots, so no street would be closed down by the project, and the new design would incorporate the same security measure. 

However, funding isn’t so secure.  The Sheriff’s office put a tax increase on the November ballot, but Simonton says the Department of Revenue didn’t give them an accurate cost estimate in time.   

“The cost figures that we got had us requesting a 1% sales tax increase last year.” 

This meant they had to make a quick adjustment.

“Midstream through the campaign, we tried to reduce that to one half percent, telling the public it would be one half percent, but unfortunately we couldn’t get the ballot change.  We were past the deadline in the ballot.”

Ultimately, the measure didn’t pass. 

At this point, both Sheriffs are discussing these grievances with the public.  In Ogle County, VanVickle says the jail concerns those who live close to the jail and have concerns with it interrupting their daily lives.  At public meetings, he points out various design considerations.

“I told one of the meetings that it has fake windows, and the windows all around the building make it look like an office building, but really, they serve no purpose but aesthetics for the neighbors.”

As for Lee County, Simonton says it’s a matter of getting out as much information as possible.

"This year, we’re offering jail tours every Monday night and we also put out a frequently asked questions document early on so people could have answers to some of the questions that were asked last year."

He also wants to address the elephant in the room.

“The hard part right now is getting over that three letter word: Tax," he said. "Nobody wants to be taxed, I don’t want to be taxed any more, but with a half percent sales tax... it’s much less invasive than a real estate tax.”

The sheriffs stress that building these jails in their planned location would be the most financially feasible option.  In Lee County, part of this would come from consolidating various law enforcement offices under one building, while Ogle could take advantage of geothermal heating.  Both sites are also on public land, so there wouldn’t be a need to make a separate real estate purchase.

At this point, both sheriffs are optimistic. 

While jails are necessary for county law enforcement, their benefits to the community are more indirect.  Thus they’re less likely to receive the same level of support as projects like a park or fire station.  And as public buildings continue to age, "Not In My Backyard" sentiment and financial objections of a similar nature are likely to come up across the state.  As for the current counties, Ogle continues to hold public meetings, and Lee will have a referendum on the sales tax April 4.