You could call Tuesday’s Woodbury County Board of Supervisors meeting an airing of grievances as activists, community members, and union officials clashed with board members over the use of American Rescue Plan funds.
The reason for the conflict is the upcoming Woodbury County Law Enforcement Center, which voters approved last year to replace a 34-year-old downtown facility. Work has started on the new jail and officials projected it would cost about $22 million to update the current facility.
The new jail was originally estimated at $50 million; however, it is expected to cost about $65 million due to increases in building materials. To make up that difference, county officials earmarked about $15.6 million in rescue funds, which is where the various points of contention stem. Woodbury County’s American Rescue Plan funding is about $20 million.
According to the US Treasury Department, “incarceration settings” are an eligible use for relief funds if they go toward COVID mitigation efforts. Woodbury County officials say a larger jail would do that by giving people who are incarcerated more room.
Community activists want to see the money used for essential worker benefits, water/wastewater system improvements, broadband internet connectivity, and houseless relief, whereas Sioux City area union representatives expressed frustration that the project was awarded to a contractor headquartered in Lincoln, Nebraska, but that operates an ancillary location about 90 minutes from downtown Sioux City.
“Aside from the fact that jails disproportionately incarcerate persons of color, this decision negatively impacts Woodbury County residents by failing to attend to the primary goals of this federal relief bill,” said Cyndi Hanson, who serves as Sioux City NAACP secretary.
Hanson argued the funds could be used for mental health, substance abuse prevention, rehabilitation, and job training, all of which she said are underfunded in the county and are proven resources to lower incarceration.
She also took exception with comments made by Supervisor Matthew Ung, who opened the meeting by reading a five-page response to board critics that specifically addressed points raised during an Aug. 19 protest held outside the Woodbury County Courthouse two days after the supervisors formalized a plan to use rescue funds for the jail.
Ung concluded his speech by pointing out a recent homicide in Sioux City—a 52-year-old Sioux City man killed his roommate after an argument—and argued that a new jail was a need in the community and not a want.
“If you want to start a call to action to actually help the community and lower our jail costs to zero, then tell people to follow the 10 Commandments and the American derivatives of that,” he said. “Tell people to stop breaking the law.”
Jen Pellant of the Western Iowa Labor Federation, which represents 35 unions in 39 counties, took exception to Ung’s portrayal of people who are incarcerated in Woodbury County.
“I have concerns that you’re up there conflating evil with criminality; we’re talking about a county jail here, not a federal supermax prison, and you’re acting like you’re housing a bunch of Jeffrey Dahmers,” Pellant said. “These are your constituents. These are the members of your community. People make mistakes.
“One of the biggest things you can do to prevent crime is invest in education. Maybe if you spend your $15.6 million on that, you wouldn’t need to keep building bigger jails, and maybe if you would use good, union labor on your project, you wouldn’t have dilapidated buildings that you have to replace.”
by Ty Rushing