A $4.6 million project to upgrade the Pennington County Jail buildings cleared its first hurdle at the Pennington County Board of Commissioners' meeting Tuesday, but not before the practice of housing federal inmates was called into question by two commissioners.

The board approved entering into an agreement with Venture Architects, Inc. for design, bidding and construction administration as the jail looks to upgrade its facilities, especially the laundry and kitchen services. The vote, 4-1, with Commissioner George Ferebee voting in opposition, authorized the county to enter into a $867,000 contract, which includes the cost of a jail study that has already been conducted by Venture.

In a presentation detailing the study’s findings on Oct. 3, Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom explained that a renovation of the laundry and kitchen facility had been under consideration for the past eight years. The facility was built in 1990 and when an annex to the jail was built in 2006, the new inmate population exceeded the capacity of the existing laundry/kitchen facilities, which also currently serve between 200 and 250 detainees at the county’s juvenile and detox centers.

Thom said the new facility would be able to accommodate up to 1,250 detainees, including those offsite, in anticipation of another annex building being constructed sometime in the future. Currently, the facility serves about 625 detainees, plus the additional offsite detainees, according to a county jail study dated Sept. 11.

The kitchen/laundry facility relocation and construction is just one part of a planned four-phase construction project. The relocation of the covered, secure parking garage for law enforcement vehicles, an addition to the jail’s administration offices including construction of a conference room, and the construction of a corridor within the jail for inmate transfers are also part of the overall project.

Aside from increasing the service capacity, the kitchen and laundry facility has issues with its water and sewer infrastructure that required improvements, said Brian Mueller, chief sheriff's deputy in charge of the county jail, in an interview Tuesday.

After Thom explained the item before the board, Commissioners Mark DiSanto and George Ferebee questioned if the additions and improvements would be necessary if the county didn’t house federal inmates.

“I’d be back here next year asking for several million dollars in operating costs if we make a decision to get out of the business of housing federal inmates,” Thom replied, adding that the county jail currently houses 191 federal inmates and the agreement with the federal government helped offset the burden of the jail system on Pennington County taxpayers.

Mueller later said that the county’s federal inmate population had seen a significant increase over the past few years.

DiSanto then asked whether, overall, the federal government payouts covered the cost of projects like the one under consideration.

“Yes, we do make money on it, and it offsets our cost of running the jail and juvenile center,” Thom said. “We need a new jail laundry regardless of whether we have federal inmates. Its shelf life is gone after 28 years.”

Ferebee remained unconvinced, saying that the second annex in 2006 was described as being able to house the county’s inmate population for a long time, but now, it seemed a third annex was in the near future.

“Are we going to be federal innkeepers?” he asked. “We need to decide that, not you, the sheriff.”

County building and grounds department director Mike Peterson said the question of whether or not to house federal inmates had nothing to do with the issue at hand.

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“This is all about core functions of the jail,” Peterson said. “If your kitchen and laundry is not functioning, the jail’s out of business. Forget the federal prisoners for a minute.”

After Ferebee continued to question why the county houses federal inmates, Thom shot back.

“If Commissioner Ferebee wants to run the jail, he should run for sheriff. We take on a lot of extra responsibility,” Thom said of housing federal inmates. “If you want me to go put a $3 million hole in your budget next year, I’ll be glad to shed all that extra responsibility and lay that in your lap, and you can figure how to fix that.”

After Ferebee and DiSanto brought forth a motion to postpone a decision until the sheriff’s office could return with figures on how much the county made from the agreement to house federal inmates, Thom asked the other commissioners what that would truly accomplish.

“We need to do the jail laundry project," he said. "It’s overdue. It’s time to do it. Commissioner Ferebee will never be satisfied whether it’s two weeks, two months, two years from now in terms of this project. He’ll always have an excuse for why he doesn’t want to support it.”

Ferebee reiterated that the last annex in 2006 was sold to the public as making the jail “good forever” in housing its inmate population and that the county may have to look elsewhere in the future if the population continues to rise.

“Forever came in a hell of a hurry,” he said.

In other board action, commissioners approved lowering the speed limit on Morris Lane from the current 50 miles per hour designation to 35 miles per hour. Morris Lane is a one-mile stretch that connects Anderson Road to Radar Hill Road just north of S.D. Highway 44 and about one mile west of the entrance to Rapid City Regional Airport.

Contact Samuel Blackstone at samuel.blackstone@rapidcityjournal.com and follow him on Twitter or Facebook @SDBlackstone.

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City reporter

City reporter for the Rapid City Journal.