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Ellis Co. details proposed improvements

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

Ellis County commissioners -- through a lesser-known board -- gave themselves the ability to raise more than $14 million to pay for a laundry list of improvements to county buildings.

Administrator Greg Sund, however, thinks the actual cost will be less than that, perhaps "somewhere under $12 million."

Without hard-and-fast estimates from engineers and architects, it's difficult to say for sure.

Commissioners are seeking a 0.5-percent sales tax to be used to build a joint EMS/Rural Fire facility and renovate the Ellis County Courthouse and jail, as well as the Commerce Bank building and the property at 601 Main for an estimated $14.5 million. The tax would sunset when payment for the facilities is completed.

Sund is confident changes in 601 Main -- giving the health department the front half of the building and moving Extension to the rear -- will cost approximately $200,000.

County administrative offices would be moved from the courthouse to the Commerce Bank building, where plans call for the removal of two flights of stairs and revamping the teller windows for the treasurer's office. That could total $650,000.

A new building for the ambulance service and rural fire department is estimated at $3.5 million.

It's the work on the Ellis County Courthouse and Law Enforcement Center that's a bit more uncertain.

"They give a (price) range in there," Sund said.

LEC expansion

If county administrative offices are moved from the courthouse, the building will be dedicated solely to law enforcement and the district court system.

That's where Sund figures the savings in the $14 million total county project will come from. At the low end of the estimate, the cost to renovate the connected buildings is slightly more than $7 million. The upper end is $11 million.

He's aiming toward the lower end of the estimate, which would put him in the ballpark of the goal of spending no more than $12 million.

But there's a lot to be done.

Preliminary architectural drawings show boosting the capacity of the jail from 30 to 84, doing so by putting in two dormitory settings capable of holding 20 inmates each.

The second floor of the LEC would expand to the north, over the existing garage, which would be extended into the parking lot.

The Ellis County Sheriff's office wouldn't gain much extra room, but the Hays Police Department would add a considerable amount, enough for extra offices, an armory and a conference room, according to current designs.

Courthouse changes

The courthouse also would see significant changes, including a new entryway at the southwest corner. The other entrance would be the existing one on the south side of the building.

Both public entryways would funnel through a security station, although it's not yet certain if a metal detector would be installed.

The existing main entrance on the west side of the building would serve only as an exit.

"The major changes are safety and security," Sund said of what's being planned in the courthouse.

Currently, inmates heading to court walk the hallway from the jail to an elevator, passing the treasurer's office and commingling with the public.

Under the new design, there's talk of putting in a second-floor walkway, which would lead to holding cells adjacent to courtrooms on both the second and third floors.

Jail facelift

While the courthouse would get a significant facelift, the jail would change dramatically and improve safety for inmates and jailers.

It also would reduce the threat of Ellis County being sued for overcrowding.

The jail's cost will be slightly more than $3 million, according to estimates.

But the expansion is being built on a premise of continued -- perhaps better -- cooperation with the courts to speed the process of getting inmates to trial.

A study of the jail, sought by Sund and Commissioner Swede Holmgren, showed most of the inmates in the jail are awaiting trial.

It also showed the type of security risk they pose, which cleared the way for the dormitory-style cells incorporated into the plan.

But Sund and the commissioners apparently are choosing to ignore the survey's recommendation on the type of jail to be constructed.

South Carolina-based CGL is suggesting a new 96-cell, standalone jail, at a cost of nearly $12 million.

"We're just not going to do that," Sund said. "That's just too expensive."

A new jail, serving as a regional facility, has been suggested before, but Sund said Ellis County's not willing to build that and hope other counties flock to use it.

Besides, he's more inclined to trust the preliminary architectural estimates from a Wichita company that's been involved in the jail discussions since 2010. Those plans and estimates have been updated, he said.

It's likely if the project moves forward, Ellis County will be transferring all of its prisoners to outlying jails during construction.

"I don't know how we can do that and keep prisoners in the jail," Sund said.

According to the plans, most of the cells now are pre-manufactured pods dropped into the jail through a hole in the roof.

Awaiting funding

Final plans won't be drawn up on any of the projects until voters weigh in on a 0.5-percent sales tax issue sometime this summer.

Sund said a proposed addition to state law has been forwarded to Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer, R-Grinnell, that would let Ellis County keep all of the proceeds, rather than splitting it among incorporated cities in the county.

Sund's still working with the city of Hays, however, to see if it will sign off on its share going to the county.

"I think it's pretty good," Sund said of the chances Hays officials will agree to give the county it's share of the tax. "There's a lot of upsides to it, rather than the legislation."

Not only does it show the city and county can work together, but Hays also would benefit because it's still part of the county and the Hays Police Department is responsible for the greatest number of inmates in the jail.

"The very fact they have more law enforcement officers tells me they have more prisoners," he said. "We don't discriminate and say that this is the Ellis County jail. It's a public safety issue."

Besides, he said, the HPD would "get to add quite a bit" of room to its share of the LEC.

"We're not expanding the sheriff's office, but this proposal does include expanding part of the police department," Sund said.

He's hopeful changes in the booking area and "more efficient uses of the building help them quite a bit."

Sund also said new estimates suggest a 0.5-percent sales tax would generate approximately $3.75 million a year.

"That's almost $700,000 more than originally estimated," he said of the estimates from the Kansas Department of Revenue based on the last 20 months of sales.

No date has been set for the sales tax vote.

* * *

Ellis County commissioners will receive a report from Sund on the proposed county sales tax at their regular meeting at 6:45 p.m. Monday at the Ellis County Courthouse.

Among items in other business:

* Subsidized organizations Hays Area Children's Center and High Plains Mental Health Center will give presentations.

* Hays Assistant City Manager Paul Briseno will give a presentation on the Hays bike trail plan.

* EMS will present its annual report.