Monroe County looking to build new jail in SW Bloomington, $10M real estate deal gets initial OK

If Monroe County builds a new jail, where will it be located? The answer to that question came Wednesday morning.

A $10.02 million purchase agreement for an 87-acre piece of land at the northeast corner of I-69 and West Fullerton Pike was approved on a unanimous vote of the three Monroe County commissioners at their regular Wednesday meeting.

The land sits inside Bloomington in the southwest corner of the city.

The land deal is part of a plan to replace the jail currently located in the justice center building at 7th Street and College Avenue in downtown Bloomington. County officials hope to have the deal done by year’s end.

The impetus to replace the jail includes long-standing challenges identified in two reports from consultants delivered a year ago.

The purchase agreement for the land includes some key contingencies. One is the statutory requirement  that two appraisals of the property have to be done. The purchase agreement is based on just one appraisal, which was for the $10.02 million in the purchase agreement.

A second key contingency is that funding be approved, which is not in the bailiwick of the three county commissioners, but rather the county council, which is the county’s fiscal body.

Responding to a question from The B Square after their Wednesday meeting, commissioners said that the increased revenue in the local income tax (LIT) approved by Bloomington’s city council in early May this year is one potential source of funding for the land deal, but it’s not the only possibility. The 0.69-point increase in the LIT approved by the city council will mean roughly $10 million more annual revenue for Monroe County government.

The county council meets next on Aug. 9 for a regular session.

A third contingency in the purchase agreement is that the now-vacant land gets rezoned, which will require that the proposal first go in front of Bloomington’s plan commission, and then win approval from Bloomington’s city council.

County attorney Jeff Cockerill said at Wednesday’s meeting that he hopes to be able to get the petition onto the plan commission’s September 12 meeting agenda. That could put it on a city council agenda sometime in November, Cockerill said.

President of the county board of commissioners Julie Thomas said, “I will just say that it is my fervent hope that the city of Bloomington is helpful in moving this project forward. They could make this very easy.”

Relations between the city of Bloomington and county government have not been free of friction over the last few years—specifically in connection with the convention center expansion, which is supposed to be a joint effort of the two local governments. The convention center project has been stalled since before the pandemic hit.

An item that initially appeared on Wednesday’s work session agenda for county commissioners could have given some inkling where the convention center expansion stands. But a scheduling issue meant that on Wednesday, Eric Spoonmore, who’s president of the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce, did not present a chamber proposal for the convention center.

Spoonmore is a former county councilor, and has been conducting a kind of shuttle diplomacy between the city and the county. Spoonmore’s presentation is supposed to be made at a commissioners work session in the near future.

A criminal justice response committee, which includes a core group of Monroe County officials, has been holding regular meetings on the topic of building a new jail, since the reports from RJS Justice Services  and Inclusivity Strategic Consulting were delivered around this time last year.

The reports highlighted a number of challenges in Monroe County’s criminal justice system, including: the chronic over-capacity population of the county jail; the repeated return of the same people to the jail; as well as the mental health and substance use disorders that affect many who are incarcerated at the county’s facility.

The RJS report describes the jail this way: “The jail facility is failing and cannot ensure consistent and sustainable provision of constitutional rights of incarcerated persons.”

The 87-acre parcel where Monroe County is looking to buy for the new jail made news in spring of 2021 when the Bloomington city council denied a rezoning request for the land. Owner Bill Brown had petitioned for a rezone to make the property more marketable.

After nearly becoming a new home for ST Semiconductor in 1988, the 87-acres have sat undeveloped for more than three decades.

Cockerill said some other options for property were considered, but the one that is now proposed was the only one that “checked off all the boxes.” One of the criteria was that it be over 40 acres, he said.

Another desirable feature was that it be located within city limits so that the county could work with Bloomington Transit to ensure adequate public bus service.

The third key factor cited by Cockerill was that the location provide a kind of buffer between it and any neighborhood.

Other contingencies in the purchase agreement include a site review, which will be done by DLZ Indiana. Like the purchase agreement, the $9,000 contract with DLZ was approved by commissioners at their Wednesday meeting.

The purchase agreement is also contingent on an environmental review. At Wednesday’s meeting, in connection with the environmental review, commissioners approved contracts with Enviro-Forensics, LLC ($1,800) and Vet Environmental Site Assessments ($7,000).

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