Jennings officials weigh new jail vs. upgrades

Jennings County Council members are still considering between building a brand new jail or upgrading the existing facility. That was their message during a public hearing Tuesday night in Vernon.

According to engineering estimates, the cost to update and expand the current facilities is $22 million. Construction costs for a new jail are estimated at $28 million. Both options will have additional costs of several million dollars. As for the new jail option, a site still would need to be selected.

County leaders would also have to figure out how to pay for a new jail. There are three options, all of them include the institution of a new public safety tax and less money for cities and towns.

Brian Hatfield, North Vernon City Council president, told the County Council that the city wants to partner and to help find a solution to the jail issue. He also urged County Council members to avoid taking any action that would hit local finances. Hatfield says that North Vernon is counting on that money to help pay for new firefighters, a new pool complex and more.

County taxpayers in attendance were split. Those in favor of a new jail spoke about the need to spend wisely now to avoid future, and more expensive, problems. Those against the proposal spoke about the need for more fiscal responsibility and less burdens on the taxpayer. Others argued that the county should do more to be proactive in addressing the root of crime locally — drugs.

Sheriff Gary Driver estimates that 50 percent of his jail population is there due to drug-related crime. However, he says that other inmates are in for crimes like theft and burglary and that many of those crimes may have had a drug component as well.

The County Council took no action, but invited residents to address the issue further at their next meeting on Oct. 2.