Crime & Courts

Group seeks to build new detention center

A group called Metropolitan Detention Kansas wants to build a medium-security detention/work release center with as many as 1,080 beds for Sedgwick County.

Gary O'Neal, chairman of the limited liability company and a former mayor of Bel Aire, told county commissioners Wednesday that Metropolitan Detention would build the center and lease it back to the county, charging a per-day, per-inmate fee.

That fee would depend on the size of the center. The center would be modular in design, allowing the addition of up to five pods of 216 beds each.

With 216 beds, Metropolitan Detention would charge $79 a day per inmate. With 1,080 beds — or five pods — the fee would go down to $54 a day.

It costs the county $60 a day to house inmates in its downtown jail.

The fees would include operation and debt service for the building. Metropolitan Detention used information from the county's 2009 budget to determine operational costs, and those could change, O'Neal said.

Commissioners said they were willing to consider Metropolitan Detention's pitch but made no commitments Wednesday, directing staff to gather more information.

Jail overcrowding is one of the biggest problems facing the county. Commissioners last year opted not to proceed with a $54 million expansion of the jail so they could cut property taxes.

The county's work release center at Harry and McLean is aging, adding to pressure for the county to find solutions.

County officials have toured closed state facilities in Labette and Butler counties to see if they could take advantage of space there. Commissioner Gwen Welshimer said she and board member Kelly Parks recently found a site at 1600 E. Murdock that could be used as an expanded work release center, but Wichita City Council member Lavonta Williams, whose district includes the area, opposes that idea.

Welshimer said she didn't have a problem with looking into Metropolitan Detention's plans further.

"We need to do the best we can do to solve this problem," she said. "We've got to move people into some other type of housing."

Though willing to listen, she said, "I think we need to know about location. The thing that might not be able to work out is the location. If they're talking about us having some place, we don't have a place to build."

O'Neal said Metropolitan Detention had identified a possible site near 127th East and K-254. He also raised the possibility of putting a center on county-owned land if possible.

"At this point, we don't have a site chosen, but we know where there are some sites available," O'Neal said.

Commissioner Dave Unruh said the fee to house inmates out of the county is lower than some of the fees Metropolitan Detention would charge. Sedgwick County pays other counties $30 a day to take its inmates, plus the cost of transporting inmates. The cost of housing inmates out-of-county may be higher because of the effect of continuing cases when inmates are readily available to appear in court. On Wednesday, 362 inmates were being housed outside the county.

"I think ultimately we're going to have to make that investment and make the decision to buy some space, but right now we don't have to and my preference is not to," Unruh said after the presentation.

Sheriff Robert Hinshaw said Metropolitan Detention has "some good ideas. We need to sit down with them and double-check their figures on what their per-diem rates would be."

Commissioner Karl Peterjohn said he is open to options.

"I want to look at it from a CJCC (Criminal Justice Coordinating Council) view. As one of two commissioners serving on the committee, I want to make sure I understand all aspects of their proposal," he said.

Commissioner Kelly Parks said he thought Metropolitan Detention's pitch was an interesting concept but thought finance staff needed to review the numbers.