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Sheriff, City Police push for study to explore central, joint facility


Dawn Graves

Sheriff John Jenson speaks to Cheyenne County Commissioner Harold Winkleman about the need to move forward with a feasibility study, as City Manager Gary Person and Police Chief B.J. Wilkinson sit nearby on Monday. The study would determine whether it would be effective for the county to join with the city police and share one facility.

The Cheyenne County Sheriff's office hopes to participate in a study to find out if sharing facilities with the city police is a good fit.

The Sidney Police Department completed a feasibility study earlier this year that determined the department needed larger, more centrally located facilities, and that space could also be made available for county facilities, if necessary.

As the county outgrows its jail and courtrooms, the need for more space is becoming a reality.

"I think in years past, it's been, so to speak, the 'pink elephant' that's been in the room that, by its sheer nature, nobody wants to talk about," said Cheyenne County Sheriff John Jenson. "I think we're to that point. This is a realistic time for us to actually look at this."

Jenson, along with Sidney Police Chief B.J. Wilkinson, approached the county commissioners on Monday to propose that they move forward with an expansion of the feasibility study that would determine whether the county should share facilities with the city.

"What we'd like to do is do a feasibility study to include a joint law enforcement center, but to include the courts and the county attorney's office in with that," Jenson said.

Jenson said he and Wilkinson spoke together about locations for the new center, and about retro-fitting their current locations.

"So we're looking at – just from our side – the options of how we're going to get the biggest bang for the buck," he said.

Commissioner Ken McMillen expressed concern about the costs involved.

"Looking down the road, where's the funding coming from?" he asked.

Jenson said that bonds would be the most likely source of funds.

"This is something that we're going to have to go out – and I think eventually we're going to have to go out to the public and do a bond. I don't think we have a choice on that," he said. "But I want to make sure that we have – before we even get to that – to make sure that that is what is needed. And I think honestly that's why you have to start with a feasibility study."

Jenson said that the current jail is set to old standards and cannot hold the number of prisoners necessary as the county grows. Funds are used to transport prisoners to other jails. Cheyenne County's female inmates are housed in Garden County.

"We've got two counties that are already committed when we do something about this, and if we can keep our costs reasonable, that they would bring their inmates in here," he said. "The jail side of it, you have to treat as a business, and we have to try to bring that business in here."

County attorney Paul Schaub added that another potential source of significant revenue would be from the Department of Corrections, which often contracts with counties instead of federal prisons to hold state prisoners in county facilities, and then reimburses the counties for that service.

Commissioners McMillen and Harold Winkleman noted that some counties had never been paid by the state to hold state prisoners in their jails, and were afraid the same thing would happen in this instance.

"When the county and the city would go in for a long-term bond issue, banking on the state paying the bill," McMillen said, "between the legislature and the law enforcement leg of the State of Nebraska, the corrections – they would pass the buck down. But the buck stops here at the local level. And we're left high and dry. We have nowhere to go."

Jenson replied that he would not want to count on state aid in the first place.

"I'm saying, what can we do here locally in the Panhandle with the counties that we work with. Yes, include (state aid) in the feasibility study – it has to be in there. It's a sensible thing. I'm just saying don't make that the reliable part."

Commissioner McMillen asked for the input of Darrel Johnson and Phil Sanders, who will be replacing McMillen and Winkleman on the board.

"I certainly think it's high time and past time to do this feasibility study," Johnson replied. "We were so overcrowded, we can go back in the records and see what was spent for hauling prisoners, and we never kept track of the man-hours to haul the prisoners, we never kept track of most of the expense, wear and tear on cars. I think the feasibility study is due now. I really do.

"We're going to be faced with building a new jail probably within our term, but it has to be understood that it is a joint facility, it has to work together, and I think it can work together ... We got to save the tax dollars we can by doing a joint facility. I'm in favor of that."

"I agree with Darrell," Sanders said. "I think this is where we start – with the study. I mean you look at the growth of the county, I don't know what choice we have."

McMillen expressed that he was still concerned about funding.

"Whether it's the city asking for bonds, or the county asking for bonds," he said, "it's the same people who are paying the bill."

"At some point in time, we have to take this seriously and say, OK, where do we go," Jenson said. This may not be the perfect time, but I think it's the time we need to at least start looking at the future of what's going to happen. Because we're not looking so much as of today, but we're looking at three, five, 10 years down the road."

McMillen said that the $25,000 it would cost for the feasibility study had not been budgeted for, but that the commissioners would discuss that funds they may be able to tap into to pay for the study. The issue will be revisited at the next meeting.


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