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Critics of plan for new Cuyahoga County jail accuse administration of rushing process

Demonstrators march past the Cuyahoga County Jail on Jan. 15, 2021.
Matthew Richmond
Ideastream Public Media
Demonstrators march past the Cuyahoga County Jail on Jan. 15, 2021.

As Cuyahoga County reaches a pivotal stage in its planning for a new county jail, critics of that plan are raising concerns that officials are rushing the project.

“I get the feeling they’re trying to unnecessarily push this through before the change of administration,” said Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael O’Malley, a member of the Justice Center Executive Steering Committee, which has been meeting since 2019 to plan the future of the Downtown Cleveland courts and jail complex. “If that in fact is their goal, I think it’s a terrible way to run county government.”

County Executive Armond Budish leaves office at the end of the year. Both candidates to replace him — Lee Weingart and Chris Ronayne — have said there should be a public vote on Budish’s proposal for financing the new jail.

County officials have chosen land in the Industrial Valley near Downtown Cleveland to build the jail. Budish submitted a $20 million purchase agreement for three parcels to county council on Aug. 2.

The land is owned by UTS Realty, a subsidiary of Warren, Michigan-based trucking company Universal Logistics Holdings, Inc, formerly known as Universal Truckload Services, Inc.

In July, Budish also announced plans to submit an extension of a 0.25% sales tax to pay for the new jail along with the proposed land purchase. The sales tax extension was submitted to council on Aug. 2.

“Based upon in-depth studies and investigations, it is clear that our current jail is outdated,” Budish said in a July 29 press release. “A new jail will be more safe, efficient, and effective both for the prisoners and the corrections personnel, and will enable the County to satisfy all State standards.”

The effort to move ahead with a land purchase and a financing plan for the jail has brought a round of criticism from county officials and activists groups.

“In my opinion, the public has to understand everything about this proposed half-billion-dollar project,” O’Malley said during an interview this week with Ideastream Public Media. “We haven’t received any of that, neither has the public.”

At the most recent meeting of the Justice Center Executive Steering Committee in April, members had planned to vote on whether to approve the purchase of land for the new jail.

Instead, committee members decided to commission a new environmental study of the site, which once held a Standard Oil refinery, and a new report on the cost of fixing the current jail instead of building a new one.

According to county officials, the environmental study is being “finalized” and will be released prior to a public meeting on the new jail. That meeting was originally scheduled for the week of Aug. 15.

Jeffrey Appelbaum, the project manager hired to oversee planning for the jail and courts, said that meeting is now expected to happen the week of Aug. 22. No specific date or location has been announced.

“I just want to point out, this idea that this is being rushed — this process has been going on for years,” Appelbaum said. “Delay is extremely expensive. There’s no aspect of this that anyone is attempting to rush.”

Once the environmental report is released, it will go to the steering committee for discussion. Their next meeting has also not been announced, but it is expected sometime after the public meeting.

Appelbaum said the testing is completed and shows what the county expected: The site’s condition has improved since air and soil testing was last conducted 20 years ago. The refinery closed down at the site in 1996.

“At the end of the day, what people are concerned about will be air quality," Appelbaum told Ideastream Public Media this week. "And after you do your proper remediation — and then keep in mind what’s going to happen in a modern jail, you’re going to have sophisticated air cleaning equipment — the quality of the air in this jail will be equal to or better than the quality of air in a residential house in Cuyahoga County that has good air quality.”

Kareem Henton from Black Lives Matter Cleveland and the Cuyahoga County Jail Coalition is skeptical about those plans.

Henton questioned whether a site with harmful gases escaping from underground can ever be made safe for the people detained there and employees. He wants the county to release the environmental report well in advance of the public meeting.

“The last environmental report that was done was over 700 pages,” Henton said in an interview this week with Ideastream Public Media. “Ideally, now that we know Jeff Appelbaum has the environmental report, it should be released immediately so it can be analyzed before any meeting, so folks can present to county council, time enough that expert analysis can be done and presented.”

Votes on the next steps for the jail may still be a while off. Ultimately, the decision to buy the land, secure financing and hire contractors will be in the hands of Cuyahoga County Council.

Neither the land purchase or the sales tax extension has been discussed there yet.

“The plan is that vote, at least on the land, that will not take place until after these studies are released and after these steering committee meetings take place,” Appelbaum said.

The second study, on the current condition of the jail, is not expected until Oct. 1.

The agreement among city and county officials is that at least a 10 -2 vote is required at the steering committee to move ahead with any part of the project. So far, Prosecutor O’Malley, Administrative Judge Brendan Sheehan and Chief Public Defender Cullen Sweeney are likely "no" votes.

O’Malley said the best plan might be to leave these decisions to the next county executive, who will take office next year.

“To make a decision of this magnitude, it’s incumbent on the administration and county council to follow the proper process,” O’Malley said. “Whoever the new county executive is needs to weigh in on this before going ahead.”

Corrected: August 12, 2022 at 4:33 PM EDT
An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported there was no record of the Budish administration introducing the sales tax extension to council. The extension was introduced on Aug. 2.

Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer focused on criminal justice issues at Ideastream Public Media.