They Blew It Again

I used to think that the most dysfunctional local public body in Madison was its School Board. But now the Dane County Board is challenging them for the title.

Last night the Board, yet again, couldn’t show any leadership. They couldn’t rally enough support to figure out what to do about the county’s jail facilities. They had three options before them and they rejected all three, leaving the question in limbo as it has been for about three years.

What everybody can agree on is the idea that the old jail on the top floors of the City County Building, designed and built in the 1950’s, is dangerous and inhumane and that the Huber Center out on the Alliant Center parking lot has far outlived its usefulness. The question has always been about how many of those beds to replace in a consolidation plan in and around the Public Safety Building downtown.

The original plan was to build facilities to house a total of 921 people, a 9% reduction from the current facilities. But costs for that project sky-rocketed and so the Board scaled it back to 825 beds, an 18% reduction from the current total capacity. But then projected costs went over budget on even that scaled down version and the Board needed to approve another $10 million in borrowing, which would make it a $176 million project in total.

And that’s where things got stuck. The Board needs a three-fourths majority to approve the budget amendment. Last night a majority of the Board supported that extra $10 million, but the vote was 25-12, just short of the super majority needed.

The other two options went down in flames. There was a proposal to build a still smaller facility with a total of 725 beds, but that lost 16-21. And the County Executive and Sheriff supported sending the question to the voters in a November referendum asking for approval of the $10 million for the 825 bed solution. That one lost on a vote of 2-35.

Board members were aghast at the referendum proposal because they said they’d be shirking their duty to decide the issue… as they’ve done for the last year or more. Give Sups. Tim Kiefer and Maureen McCarville credit for being the only two members to realize that a referendum was the only way to break the impasse. Why the other 35 thought there was some other answer given the history of this issue is beyond me.

It seems to me that what has to happen next is for County Executive Joe Parisi to put the needed money in his 2023 capital budget, which he should be introducing in a few weeks. That could work because adoption of the budget (as opposed to an amendment later on) only needs a simple majority and the Board apparently has that.

But, of course, costs keep rising. So, it’s important that Parisi build in some added inflation to make sure that the 825 bed plan actually gets built. If he doesn’t, we may be back here having the same discussion a year from now.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

5 thoughts on “They Blew It Again

  1. Maybe it’s time to think bigger and move the jail and law enforcement off the Isthmus entirely. It’d be cheaper to build something in the sticks. Courthouse would remain downtown so liberal use of zoom calls would have to continue. What other pros and cons are there?

    If it comes to a referendum I’d need to know what makes the current jail inhumane and unsafe and how the new jail fixes it.


    1. I suppose the issue there would be proximity to the current (and relatively new) main jail facility in the Public Safety Building. My guess is that running two facilities miles apart would be more expensive over time.


  2. The current jail controversy dates to 2014, when the County Board (unanimously) voted to close the CCB jail. Since then there have been many studies, many debates, and many votes, but no action.


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