Dane County executive, sheriff propose public referendum on jail consolidation project costs

MADISON, Wis. — Dane County’s sheriff and county executive are calling for a public referendum to determine the fate of the Dane County Jail consolidation project, saying an additional $10 million necessary for the project won’t get the needed votes on the Dane County Board.

The project has faced continuous setbacks caused by inflated construction costs, with a recent estimate setting the total cost nearly $10 million above the county’s approved budget. According to the latest figures from the county, the entire project is now estimated to cost just over $175 million.

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That estimate came just months after the county board approved an additional $16 million for the design and construction of a re-designed jail consolidation project, bringing the project’s budget to $165.9 million.

Now, after numerous delays, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi says the county is likely to see more delays as construction and labor costs continue to increase.

“Time is not on our side and after exploring options for close to a decade, the best and frankly only feasible plan is to put the jail to a public vote this fall,” Parisi said.

Three-quarters of the 37-member Dane County Board of Supervisors would need to support adding $10 million to the project’s budget in order for the resolution to pass, which Parisi said is unlikely to happen.

Elizabeth Doyle, chair for the county’s finance committee which removed the item from its agenda Monday evening, said there were other procedures she and county board chair Patrick Miles were exploring for getting the $10 million through for approval.

“If the board chooses to go to referendum,” Doyle said, “I think it does show kinda a failure on our part to be making these hard decisions and doing this hard work. So I really just hope folks work collaboratively to move this forward.”

Doyle added that county administration and the sheriff’s office weren’t considering other alternatives or responding to calls for group meetings with board leadership.

“I know various supervisors have reached out to the sheriff to say, ‘We’re willing to fund renovations in the short term to address safety concerns,” she said. “The focus just seems to be on wanting to build the jail as is and just not taking this new information into account or giving space to the JFA study results if there are additional improvements to make.”

She referenced that several supervisors who would currently vote against the added $10 million are seeking additional research from the JFA Institute to ensure any changes come with a holistic criminal justice approach in mind.

A public referendum for the fall general election ballot would only need a simple majority approval from the county board. Additions to approved capital spending projects require a three-fourths majority, while budget amendments–which Doyle is exploring for the jail instead–would need a two-thirds majority vote.

Parisi and Barrett, however, are pushing publicly for a different solution.

“Every time we let months go by, this project ends up costing millions more. Delay is only making this more expensive,” Parisi said. “If the Board doesn’t have the votes to keep this moving – that’s understandable – but then the only responsible step is to allow the residents of this county to decide.”

Dane County Sheriff Kalvin Barrett in fall 2021 described the current jail as “inhumane and not safe,” while calling on county board members to pass millions in additional funding to bring the project to fruition. During a Monday afternoon press conference, Barrett said the county has come too far to not finish the project.

RELATED: ‘Inhumane, borderline unconstitutional’: Dane Co. Sheriff weighs pricy alternative as new jail plans creep forward

“This project is at a crossroads and we have come too far not to finish the job and fund the work that many years of analysis shows is needed and frankly overdue,” Barrett said. “For us to get the highest quality contractors and bidders, we as a county need to send a clear signal that we support a safer, more humane jail facility.”

Barrett went on to say he thinks further reductions to the jail’s future design — which has already been scaled back to address budgetary concerns — would jeopardize public safety.