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SIOUX CITY | Woodbury County officials will research this year whether to continue using the century-old Prairie Hills building to hold low-risk inmates as an alternative to the Law Enforcement Center jail downtown. The facility has had ongoing maintenance issues. 

Several Sheriff's Office functions are in what used to be called the County Home. It was initially a place where poor people could raise cattle and vegetables, then later housed mentally ill county residents. Located just east of Sioux City limits on County Road D25, the main Prairie Hills building is 100 years old. A wing was added in 1975.

"It has some age, but it has been well taken care of over the years," said Sheriff Dave Drew, who wants to keep the facility open.

County Board member Larry Clausen, of Sioux City, agreed Prairie Hills has "usefulness" but said the facility may have to be abandoned when upkeep costs rise too high.

The county converted the building in 2000 to use as a jail annex. The facility houses minimum security inmates. Law enforcement also holds training exercises there, and meals for inmates in the main jail are prepared there.

The conversion included some unanticipated building repairs in 1999, including for boiler problems. Over the past 15 years, the county has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on repairs, including an air conditioning system renovation a few years ago.

In 2011, the county spent $25,000 to fix rather than shut down the elevator, which was not up to code, and another $80,254 on tuckpointing for the exterior. Roof renovations are planned this summer, and a new boiler will be installed by fall.

The ongoing expenses have prompted vigorous discussions among County Board members, who have debated whether keeping the building open is worth the cost. Prairie Hills survived a possible closure in February 2009, when $300,000 worth of repairs were proposed.

OVERVIEW PLANNED

Now, Prairie Hills is due for its most extensive overview since the conversion, by a committee that will be formed to research how county buildings are used. The committee will be charged with recommending long-term uses for buildings and providing cost estimates for needed improvements.

County Board Chairman George Boykin, of Sioux City, said there is no current estimate on how long the county could continue to use the Prairie Hills building as a jail or for some other purpose. The county might have more answers later this year, after the committee does some research.

County Building Services Department Director Mark Elgert said he isn't sure how much longer the building will last. He aims to make it usable "for a longer haul, I wouldn't say a long haul." Regardless of whether the Sheriff's Office continues to use the building, Elgert said, it will remain a county asset that his department must adequately maintain.

"It is like every other building, you have to do your upkeep to keep it in worthy condition," Elgert said.

In May 2012 the County Board decided to seek an energy audit of Prairie Hills, in an effort to make it more energy efficient. County officials did not respond to several requests this month to see that audit.

Boykin said the facility fulfills a need for the county and its age doesn't necessarily mean it can't continue to do so.

"I like old structures. That facility is still usable. It may still be usable for the services we are using it for right now," he said.

CROWDING CONCERNS

The downtown jail was built in 1987 with a 170-inmate capacity. The conversion to the Prairie Hills jail annex 15 years ago added 40 beds. At a time when county officials were wrestling with crowded jail conditions, the state of Iowa granted a waiver that allows the main jail to run above the designed capacity, with Prairie Hills as a place to divert inmates.

That waiver ends if Prairie Hills is closed, Drew cautioned. Closure could mean a return to crowding at the jail, forcing the county to look at other, expensive, options for housing inmates, he said.

Drew said the average daily count is 25 in the 40-bed Prairie Hills building. Inmates housed there can't have a felony arrest history or convictions for violent offenses.

The 1975 wing has two large classrooms, along with a full-size gymnasium and a large weight room and workout area for employee training. All food preparation for inmate meals is done in the kitchen at Prairie Hills.

Drew's budget for feeding inmates this year is $246,000. Drew said without the Prairie Hills kitchen, the cost of feeding more than 200 inmates three times a day would go up.

"It would be the wrong direction to close it," Drew said. "It is the best bang for our dollar."

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County and education reporter

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