Supervisors, council hear results of jail study
A new law enforcement center and jail could be in the cards for Fort Dodge and Webster County.
In October, the Webster County Board of Supervisors approved a request from Webster County Sheriff Luke Fleener for a design and construction firm to conduct a jail study to see if the county had a need for a new jail or LEC.
On Wednesday, the firm contracted to do the study, The Samuels Group, of West Des Moines, and a representative from Venture Architects, presented the results of the study to members of the Board of Supervisors and the Fort Dodge City Council.
The current Webster County Law Enforcement Center, located at 702 First Ave. S., is nearly 40 years old and the departments housed in the building have simply outgrown the space, according to the sheriff.
More importantly, however, the LEC has been facing overcrowding issues on the jail floor. As of earlier this week, there were 50 inmates being held in the Webster County Jail and eight inmates being housed out of jails in neighboring counties.
Over the past decade, Webster County has paid more than $610,000 to house inmates in jails in neighboring counties, spending $247,545 in 2021 alone.
There are also currently 884 individuals waiting to serve time for non-violent misdemeanors. These individuals have been sentenced to short jail stays, often just a few days to a week, but because of the overcrowding have been unable to complete their sentences.
The study included looking at statistics, crime rates, the state of the current facility and the expected future needs of the county and city, Fleener said.
“There is no price tag to any of this yet,” he said. “This is about showing our community that this is an issue that has arised over several years.”
In looking at the current jail, located on the third floor of the LEC, the study found several design issues, including with how the jail floor is laid out. The jail is laid out in a “linear” design, which “creates significant safety and security problems due to poor sight lines into cell areas,” said John Cain, of Venture Architects.
The control room does not have any direct view of the jail cells — just the security cameras. It is also difficult to see into some cells without going into them, creating safety concerns for the jail staff.
THE PROPOSED DESIGN of a possible new LEC has the jail designed in a “podular” form, with a central control room surrounded by two levels of cells in a horseshoe formation, allowing the staff in the control room to have a direct line of sight into each cell.
Fleener said that if the project would come to fruition, he doesn’t expect there to be any anticipated staffing issues and that the new safety features could be used as a recruiting tool if more jail staff was needed.
The study found other issues with the current jail, including inadequate space to house inmates with different classifications like security-level and special needs. There were also problems with the booking area identified.
The Samuels Group presented a rendering of a possible design of what a new LEC could look like, which includes office space for both the sheriff’s office and the police department, as well as shared training facilities, gun range, a large sally port, communications center and covered garage for department vehicles.
A NEW FEATURE proposed with this idea is a mental health wing, modeled after the mental health access centers in Clarke, Johnson, Black Hawk, Linn, Wapello, Polk and Dallas counties. There is no mental health access center in northwest Iowa, and the Webster County center could serve the region.
The mental health access center would be a 12-bed non-secure treatment wing focusing on sub-acute mental health and crisis stabilization services.
According to the jail study, 65% of individuals arrested in Webster County are classified as mentally ill, and eight to 10 individuals with mental illness are held in the jail each week.
Fort Dodge City Councilman Kim Alstott, Ward 4, said he is excited for the mental health aspect of the proposed LEC.
“I think this is something we really need,” he said.
Five locations with roughly 18 acres each were identified as possible future locations of a new LEC. The sites are all located along the outer edges of the city.
Fort Dodge Police Chief Roger Porter was asked if he had any concerns about the police station no longer being in a centralized location in the city.
He said he wasn’t because police officers aren’t usually at the LEC when they respond to calls — they’re out patrolling. He added that the current location of the LEC is landlocked and the department needs space to expand, which it doesn’t have in downtown.
THE CURRENT LEC and jail underwent a $10 million renovation about a decade ago. That project added just four beds to the jail, Fleener said, and was mainly focused at updating the HVAC system and other building problems.
Webster County Supervisor Keith Dencklau noted that the county is still making annual debt service payments of $500,000 for the jail remodel project from 10 years ago, and is expected to continue those payments until 2029.
If the new LEC project moves forward, the current building on First Avenue South would not be left vacant — it would remain in use by the county, Fleener said, with the possibility of other county departments moving in and expanding.
Alstott asked about a possible timeline for the project. The project wouldn’t break ground until voters approve it in a public referendum election. But once approved and construction begins, it would take about two years to complete, Samuels said. The design phase would also take about 10 months, he said.
Samuels said the next steps would be the formation of a floor plan for the facility and to put together numbers of the construction cost and impact on taxpayers.
The county last looked at building a new LEC in 2001.