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Path of Justice: Webster County nears opening of first new jail since 1941

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The northeast corner of the Marshfield square has been a hub of activity since the start of 2018, with a historic construction project set to conclude this summer.

Completion of the $18.6 million Webster County Justice Center is scheduled for Aug. 14. A 116-bed jail and administration control room occupy the three-story structure’s first floor, the sheriff’s office operates on the second floor and a 75-seat courtroom and court support, including attorney consultation rooms and an inmate holding area, takes up the top floor.

“It’s been exciting, but it’s also been scary,” said Webster County Clerk Stan Whitehurst, on bringing the 56,000-square-foot center to fruition.

“It’s an honor to be a part of,” added Paul Ipock, Webster County presiding commissioner. “It’s the biggest project Webster County has ever built.”

The justice center’s opening this year is the first of three phases, although officials said there is no timeline for when the other two will be executed. A second phase is designed for the remainder of law enforcement services, including all court and prosecutor’s office personnel. The third phase will allow for a 138-bed expansion to the jail.

The current jail, just a fraction of the size of the new facility, has long operated out of the county courthouse, built in 1941. County officials have been looking to replace it for decades.

‘Focused on the need’
Following his predecessors Eugene Fraker, William John, C.E. Wells and Ron Worsham in office, Roye Cole is the fifth Webster County sheriff to approach commissioners about constructing a new jail. The jail was on Cole’s mind when first elected to office in 2008, as someone asked him on election night when he was going to build it.

“I need to learn how to run one first,” he said, recalling his response.

Six years later, the opportunity to build a new one was tied to the August 2014 election. A pair of issues was added to the ballot – a quarter-cent sales tax to provide funds for construction of a new jail and law enforcement services, and a use tax to help fund the jail operations. The sales tax passed, while the use tax failed. However, since the sales tax wasn’t designated solely for construction, it has no sunset. County officials said some of the revenue generated annually by the tax, which was $830,689 in 2018, would be used for operational costs.

Cole said getting the sales tax issue passed was undoubtedly helped by public tours of the existing jail to let people see the aging facility and its massively overcrowded conditions.

“We just focused on the need,” he said. “Sometimes people argue over the answer, but they always agree with the need. People saw the need that we have and realized it’s better to move forward.”

Webster County’s population has been on the rise in recent years, with 39,109 residents in 2018 Census Bureau estimates. That’s an 8% increase from the 2010 census. In contrast, crime rates have been on the decrease, with reports of major assaults, sex offenses and murders totaling 11 in 2018, Cole said, compared with 44 in 2015.

However, he said the overall jail occupancy average is up overall, in part, because people are being held behind bars longer.

Jail capacity on the top floor of the courthouse is 32 inmates.

But Cole said the count typically runs in the upper 50s or lower 60s, with multiple inmates packed into cells – forcing some to sleep on the floor. Most of the time, Webster County also has to house inmates in other counties, costing $59,875 last year to do so, Whitehurst said. That total is average for most years, he added.

Fitting in
In promoting the ballot issues, and after the sales tax passage, county officials say they spoke to all who would listen.

Cole said the public was invited to weigh in on designs for the facility in early 2017. Prior to then, the county was securing space for the justice center on and near the square. Some of the property was already owned by the county, while the former Robertson Hardware store, where the building sits, was purchased in 2016 for $200,000 and demolished, according to county officials.

“In terms of what our goals were, No. 1, we wanted a safe working environment,” Whitehurst said. “This is a substantial improvement in that department. We also wanted to design a building that fit in the community and harmonized with the downtown area.”

Ipock said designers at Overland Park, Kansas-based HMN Architects Inc., the architect selected through an open bidding process, knew county officials wanted to create a building that would enhance and fit in the community.

“We went as far as taking brick from different buildings on the square to make sure it was going to match,” he said.

While the process to get the general look of the building was successful, Ipock said the project did run into a roadblock in January 2017 when higher-than-expected bids were received, due in part to steel costs. All bids were rejected and the project design had to be modified, resulting in a scaled back version that meant some county offices would have to be included in a future second phase.

By October 2017, the project was put back out for bids, with a total of 13 work packages selected. The packages include multiple companies taking on different aspects, including asphalt paving, fire sprinklers, steel detention modules, elevators and precast concrete wall panels.

Whitehurst said some local companies participated in the project, such as Marshfield-based Donco 3 Construction LLC, which did a lot of the concrete work. Much of the concrete material came from Marshfield-based Rost Ready Mix Inc.

While there is no general contractor for the project, Harold Hume with Sedalia-based Septagon Construction Co. Inc. is the construction manager. He said workers from Webster and surrounding counties have handled about 90% of the work. There have been as many as 100 working on-site at any one time but generally between 60-80 employees. “Everything’s come along pretty good,” he said.

Painting is ongoing, with door installations and sheet rock to finish this month. Lighting is expected to be complete by mid-June.

Hume said he feels confident the project will wrap up by deadline. After that, the county expects to take possession but doesn’t plan to have the facility operational until around Oct. 1, Whitehurst said.

“The operation of this jail is going to be highly technical,” he said. “There’s a lot of computer-based security systems and we’re not going to move in until the jail staff is ready. We’re dedicating a lot of time to just training to make sure we’re comfortable with the operation.”

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