Both candidates for Cuyahoga County Executive, Democrat Chris Ronayne and Republican Lee Weingart, sent strongly worded letters to Cuyahoga County Council this week urging them, for the love of God, to heed public opinion and pump the brakes on the county jail project.
That project, if you hadn't heard, is now estimated to cost in the neighborhood of $750 million, (which means a taxpayer bill of roughly $2 billion, with interest included). Council proposes financing the project with county bonds and repaying them with proceeds from a quarter-percent sales tax. That tax is currently set to expire in 2027 — it was used for the Huntington Convention Center complex and a portion of the Q Deal — but council wants to extend it for an additional 40 years.
(Extending a sunsetting tax by 40 years, instead of extending it indefinitely, is this clown council's version of responsible government.)
The Justice Center Steering Committee, an ad hoc advisory body, will meet Tuesday morning to vote on whether to approve the jail site council prefers, a former Standard Oil refinery at 2700 Transport Road. Council has made it abundantly clear that they intend to purchase that land and begin building the jail as soon as possible.
They have been advised by consultant Jeff Applebaum that the project's skyrocketing costs, which recently ballooned from $550 million, will only get higher the longer they wait.
But both Ronayne and Weingart are opposed. They have suggested that they'd change course if elected and are now echoing the majority of public commenters as they urge the council to see reason.
Ronanye correctly noted in his letter that the project would be among the costliest, if not the costliest, in the county's history. He asked that the council not enter a purchase agreement for the site at Transport Road in October, citing the high cost of remediation and the county's liability in future legal action due to the levels of contamination. He said, moreover, that the site was not sufficiently accessible to visitors via public transit and that the size of the jail should be reviewed in concert with increased diversion efforts.
"We owe it to the citizens and taxpayers of Cuyahoga County to get this right," he wrote.
Lee Weingart, too, opposes the jail. He has vocally opposed the high cost of the project since his campaign began. In his letter to council, he said it was "time to go back to the drawing board" on the project and offered a specific alternative that he said he would pursue if elected.
We are doing a disservice to voters by making a massive decision days before voting begins for new leadership. I urge County leaders to listen to voters and wait until the transition of executive office to make a decision on the new or renovated jail. Read my full letter below. pic.twitter.com/mGuKdK4e2U— Chris Ronayne (@chrisronayne) September 29, 2022
His plan includes renovating the current "Jail II" in the justice center complex and reducing its capacity from 770 to 650. He then wants to build new jail (what he calls Jail III) on the site of the old juvenile detention facility with a capacity of 600-700, putting the total capacity for both jails in the 1,250 - 1,300 range.
That's a good deal less than the current 1,750 capacity, but Weingart, like Ronayne, believes that increased efforts should be made to bring down the jail population, including by more fully utilizing the diversion center. Weingart has repeatedly said that the new jail in Franklin County (Columbus) only has a capacity of roughly 1,000 and that Cuyahoga County should not be building a facility to hold 1,900.
"My approach will reduce the outrageous cost of the proposed new jail, protect the health of defendants and jail staff, and ensure public safety without compromising the County’s long-term financial health," Weingart said.
Cuyahoga County Councilman Mike Gallagher sneered at the candidates in a recent meeting. He accused Ronayne and Weingart of having "opinions without information" on the jail project and advocated "putting blinders on" in order to charge full speed ahead.
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