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Price tag for new Cuyahoga County Jail has jumped to at least $700 million

The current Cuyahoga County Jail in Downtown Cleveland, with ground floor windows boarded up after 2020 protests centered around the Justice Center led to clashes between police and demonstrators.
Matthew Richmond
Ideastream Public Media
The current Cuyahoga County Jail in Downtown Cleveland, with ground floor windows boarded up after 2020 protests centered around the Justice Center led to clashes between police and demonstrators.

The estimated cost for a new county jail has increased dramatically over the past two years, from the October, 2020 estimate of $550 million to at least $700 million dollars today.

That’s what Cuyahoga County councilmembers heard from Jeffrey Appelbaum, the consultant hired to oversee planning for the jail project on behalf of the county.

“All told, these numbers are pretty extraordinary,” Appelbaum said, when describing the yearly increases in construction costs driven by inflation, supply chain disruptions, the war in Ukraine and other factors over the past two years.

Appelbaum said construction project prices are expected to continue to rise by 8% per year.

“I think if we can get this project, moving it forward, we might be able to control that over the next several months so it doesn’t go higher,” Appelbaum said.

The original cost of $550 million was always presented as a rough estimate, dependent on the site the county selects to build on and the final plan for the new jail. And since the beginning, Appelbaum warned officials that construction prices were likely to increase, but he told council an increase this large is a surprise.

Appelbaum made his presentation as council began considering several ordinances that would purchase the land for the jail for $20 million and extend a quarter percent sales tax created to pay primarily for the convention center.

No votes were taken on that legislation, the Committee of the Whole meets again next week. Appelbaum did lay out a preferred timetable for moving ahead.

“It assumes we can get our design team back going literally in the beginning of October,” Appelbaum said. That would require the purchase of land by then.

He added that schedule would allow the county to start construction by August of 2023.

County officials started planning for the future of the jail in Downtown Cleveland and the attached courts building, known collectively as the Justice Center, in 2019.

A Justice Center Executive Steering Committee was created to include county, city of Cleveland law enforcement and courts officials. In November, 2020, that group voted 12-0 to build a new, low-rise jail outside Downtown Cleveland and to keep the courts somewhere in Downtown Cleveland.

All final decisions still have to be made by county council. Six months ago, the county announced it had settled on a site to build on. It’s a former oil refinery near Downtown Cleveland, currently owned by a trucking company.

The Steering Committee has not yet voted on that site, after stiff opposition from the public and skepticism about environmental remediation costs led officials to delay the vote and order a new environmental review.

That study found what the project’s backers expected – there is contamination still at the site but it can be remediated to make the land safe for residential use.

During Tuesday’s meeting of county council’s Committee of the Whole, Kareem Henton of Black Lives Matter Cleveland spoke during public comment in opposition to the jail, describing the decision to build at the proposed site as environmental racism.

“I ask you all – what makes this risk palatable?” Henton said. “It should not be a done deal. People should not be speaking as if it’s a done deal. We should look to renovating the current jail.”

Councilmembers appeared undeterred by the increasing construction costs or conditions at the site at 2700 Transport Road. A new review of the conditions and cost of renovating the current jail, also requested by the Steering Committee, is expected to be released later this month.

A report filed with that committee from 2014 found the existing jail would need $305 to $428 million in repairs to be usable for the next 20 to 30 years. The building has severe plumbing, roof, HVAC and technology issues. Substantial repairs would also create major logistical hurdles. People detained there would have to be moved around to allow for repairs.

Councilman Michael Gallagher sits on the Steering Committee and chairs council’s Justice Committee. He pressed members to push ahead, despite the opposition.

“They get the community all riled up about the toxic waste in the ground,” said Gallagher, who argued that Cleveland and other cities are full of projects built on former industrial land. “You shut this project down because of this, you’re shutting down urban development.”

Several other councilmembers echoed Gallagher’s preference to keep the project moving ahead. Councilwoman Meredith Turner said she had toured the jail twice recently.

“I am scared and nervous about the state of our current jail. It is being held up by stilts,” Turner said. “I think that we really need to move forward.”

The county estimates that the sales tax will bring in $54 million a year. Between $50 and $54 million a year would go toward paying down the debt on the jail for 40 years.

In September, when County Executive Armond Budish first proposed the plan, the estimate was that $35 million a year would go toward paying down the debt on the jail.

Budish said at the time there would be leftover money every year to help pay for a new or renovated courts tower or other capital projects.

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