Could American Rescue Plan dollars help build a new Lucas County jail?

·5 min read

May 15—Toledo City Councilman Katie Moline floated the idea last month: Why not use some of the federal aid dollars about to flow into city and county coffers to fix the Lucas County jail problem?

"One of our biggest challenges of this region is we're going to have to build a new jail. So I submit that we use part of this money, along with the county, to begin that process," she told her colleagues. "I submit this because I think for any dollar we use of the stimulus money, it's one less that we're going to have to ask taxpayers for down the road, either via levy or through bonding."

Lucas County is set to receive $83.2 million and Toledo is set to receive $180.9 million, about $8 million less than city officials initially thought, from the American Rescue Plan Act. Municipalities will receive the funding in two halves, with the first allocation anticipated by the end of the month and the second to come next year.

The downtown Lucas County jail, built in 1977, is outdated, too small, inefficient, and by some measures unsafe, commissioners have said.

County leaders have for years been trying to figure out how to either renovate it or build anew, but securing funding and a location have been stumbling blocks. Voters in 2018 rejected a levy proposal that would have paid for a new jail, and in 2019 a citizen-led ballot initiative restricted the location of any new jail in Toledo to downtown's boundaries.

Tina Skeldon Wozniak, the Lucas County Board of Commissioners' president, said she hasn't had any discussions about partnering with the city on building a new jail, but she would welcome the collaboration.

That is, if the federal government will allow it.

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The U.S. Department of Treasury on May 10 issued guidance long-awaited by municipalities regarding how the money can be used. Acceptable uses were divided into five categories: to support public-health expenses; to address negative economic impacts caused by the public-health emergency; to replace lost public sector revenue; to provide premium pay for essential workers, and to invest in water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure.

Ms. Wozniak said the guidance document is long and county officials haven't fully digested it yet. She isn't sure if a new-build jail would be an allowable use of the funds.

"We're grateful for the money, but at the same time we want to make sure that we legally do everything in accordance with the regulations," Ms. Wozniak said. "Our team is studying this extensively so that we provide important dollars both internally and into the community to help them step out of this COVID experience."

County officials in 2018 estimated demolishing the old jail and building a new complex on land outside of downtown — the commissioners pitched two different site plans that were ultimately abandoned — would cost about $180 million. About $155 million would go toward the new jail, while $25 million would go toward a behavioral health solutions center, something the commissioners said is critical to a modern approach to criminal justice.

Lucas County Sheriff Mike Navarre is working on creating a plan for what he wants to see in a new jail, Ms. Wozniak said. He declined to comment for this story.

"I think there's no doubt that both he and the three commissioners and our team want to build a jail, but I don't think at this point that anyone has said that this money would be used solely for the jail," Ms. Wozniak said.

The jail is one of many projects on the county's wish list, she said. Other items include a new Lucas County Canine Care & Control building, expanding workforce development opportunities, providing food assistance for children, and supporting educational initiatives such as preschool.

"Right now our No. 1 goal is to get into this and find out what's permissible and what's not," County Administrator Megan Vahey Casiere said. "This is one-time, once-in-a-lifetime money. The charge is that we ensure it has the greatest impact for our county."

Ms. Casiere said she plans to coordinate with other jurisdictions, like the city of Toledo and Toledo Public Schools, to ensure they're not stepping on each other's toes and can work together to leverage each group's allocations. Organizations have until 2024 to spend the money, so there is time to craft a strategic plan, she said.

Officials also are watching President Joe Biden's proposed infrastructure plan to see if it makes its way through Congress, as they don't want to spend American Rescue Plan dollars on projects that could instead be paid for through an infrastructure measure.

Ms. Moline last week called for a Finance & Debt Oversight Committee meeting so city council and the mayor's office can discuss Toledo's strategy for the American Rescue Plan dollars. That meeting will be held virtually at 4 p.m. Wednesday and can be viewed online at toledo.legistar.com.

Toledo Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz in March released a tentative plan with six categories for how he'd like to spend the one-time funding: budget stabilization; safe and livable neighborhoods; youth, recreation, and parks; job creation, site clean up, and redevelopment; green and healthy housing and housing preservation; employee health and well-being.

First Published May 15, 2021, 10:00am