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In the last week, documents acquired by a Freedom Of Information Act request have revealed a number of troubling communications exchanged by members of the Jail Space Improvement Project Planning Team. The Team is the Champaign County Board's primary representative to County staff on the jail issue. Among these documents are emails exchanged by County Administrator Deb Busey and County Sheriff Dan Walsh which site projected costs as well as specific numbers concerning bonds to be issued backed by the Public Safety Sales Tax.
Anyone who has been following the debate over the past couple months knows that funds and costs have been a principle concern for Board members on both sides of the aisle. Despite this, repeated requests for facts and figures regarding what this project could cost and how we're going to fund it have been met with consistent evasiveness on the part of the Project Planning Team. For instance, at the January 31st study session on the jail issue, Board Chair Pius Weibel asked the engineer hired by the Planning Team to estimate the costs of the project- not specifically, but, “just in general, top of the head sort of, experience...” Now, merely a week before the Chair asked his question, County Administrator Deb Busey, who is on the Planning Team, wrote an email (find it here), dated January 24, to County Sheriff Dan Walsh, who is also on the Team, which read,
I do have an unofficial cost estimate for this project that the construction costs should be in the $22 million ball park. If that were true- 6% for Architecural Engineering fees would be $1,320,000- but of course that is for the construction project. I don't know if the initial stages of space needs analysis are part of that total 6% or not.
And yet, Ms. Busey sat at the front of those chambers and said nothing. She gave absolutely no indication that she in fact had just recently acquired a general, ballpark estimate of what the construction project could cost. I would hope that someone on this County Board would want to know how Ms. Busey came to the decision not to provide this information when her employers requested it in a public forum.
In addition, at least five other Board members commented on the apparent lack of even preliminary figures relating to the capacity of the County to pay for this proposed project: Pattsi Petrie, Chris Alix, James Quisenberry and Carol Ammons. Tom Betz, another Team member who was sitting at the front of the room that night, responded to their concerns by telling them that,
The County Board rarely can come up with money for things. We don't have money right now for this project, everyone knows it, this is why we're looking at it right now. We know there's no money right now, it's gonna be at least 2015 if not longer, but you have to start planning and making some decisions, whether you're going to have the jail downtown, whether you're going to have it just out at the satellite, whether you're going to try a combination of things... to have the discussions is not to foreclose options...
Now, it is possible that Mr. Betz genuinely believed that there was no funding model in place. Later in that same meeting, he affirmed that there were no specific numbers on costs or funding available- he even agreed to add the question of a funding model to the agenda for the next Committee of the Whole. Whether they had shared the information with Betz or not, however, we know that the individuals sitting to his left and right that night did have specific numbers, in fact had had them for almost a year, and we know that they said nothing. I will arrive at what these numbers were in just a moment- first, I would like to provide a question Board Member Giraldo Rosales asked at the next week's Facilites committee meeting, as Deb Busey and Dan Walsh looked on:
How did we determine that we would spend the amount of money that we are projected to spend, I mean we really don't know how much this is gonna cost exactly, but I would imagine it's over ten million, anywhere form 10 to 20 million, how did we arrive at that, and determine that, in a situation where we're still in debt by the nursing home and we're not coming afloat on that, and there's other expenses that we have, and bonds that we have on the courthouse that we haven't totally paid off, I'm just kinda wondering, do we have that type of capital to build anew, and spend that and then be in hock for the next, I think the last figures I saw in were until 2029?
Let's be clear here: Mr. Rosales is not asking for a precise figure that will be accurate in six months. He wants to know whether there has been any thought given to how we are going to come up with the money that we have projected we might spend. On March 4, 2011, the Planning Team member Deb Busey sent the following (posted here) to Planning Team member Dan Walsh:
My comment on construction project funding is the following:
We anticipate a $15 million debt issue to pay for this project in 2013- with debt service to begin in 2014. We will have to structure the debt so that the first 3 years of payments are interest only payments- which we have projected should be about $575,000 to $600,000/year. We would then begin making full principle and interest payments in FY2017- which annual payments are projected at $1,055,417. These projections assume we are able to obtain a 3.5%-4% interest rate. Our long term projections for the Public Safety Sales Tax support this level of funding for the jail replacement.
Neither Ms. Busey nor Mr. Walsh made any indication that they had an answer to exactly the question Mr. Rosales was asking. Instead, Mr. Betz told him that, “We don't have a figure for how much this is gonna cost. We don't. That's one of the things we do need to find out about.” But Mr. Rosales was not asking about how much the project would cost- he was asking how we arrived at the fiscal projections which were informing the expected scale of the solution to the issues at the downtown jail. Mr. Betz's response is particularly troubling because he is quoted in a News Gazette article from November 2011 saying that we “might be able to get a $12 to $15 million dollar facility with [the quarter cent (sales tax)] money.” The projections had in fact been made, and were undeniably known to at least two of the individuals who were present at the public forum where Mr. Rosales asked his question. These new insights beg the question- is the Champaign County Board prepared to be held accountable for the actions of their Project Planning Team? Are the residents and voters of Champaign willing to let the plans for 15 million dollars of their money be made behind closed doors? Until substantive procedures for oversight by and accountability to the County Board are put in place for the Team, the public will be in the dark and the Board will be at risk.
By Jerehme Bamberger
Headline by UCIMC Editorial Staff