Woodbury County counting on $15M in COVID relief funds for new $65M jail

Woodbury County plans to rely on $15.6 million in federal COVID-19 relief to build a $65 million jail complex near Sioux City. 

The project has been in the works since 2016, and county voters passed a $50 million dollar bond referendum last year to cover the costs of the new complex. But then the price tag shot up – a result of pandemic-related inflation on building materials. 

The supervisors voted unanimously on June 8, 2021, to use federal pandemic relief money on the higher-priced project. “If that wasn’t coming, I don’t know what we would be doing,” said Woodbury County Supervisor Matthew Ung at a June 1, 2021 meeting.  

The American Rescue Plan Act is a $1.9 trillion federal aid package passed in March to provide direct relief to Americans affected by the pandemic and to bolster the U.S. economy. Could a county use grants through that plan to build an 110,000-square-foot regional jail project? 

The answer, so far, is maybe, according to state leaders and a national expert IowaWatch interviewed for this story. If the answer is no, taxpayers could be on the hook for the $15.6 million. 

Dennis Butler, Woodbury County’s finance director, said he was working with Governor Kim Reynolds’ policy advisor, Joel Anderson, to use the funding.

State parks ‘couldn’t function without volunteers’

Barbara Lee of Council Bluffs took her daughter to Lake Manawa State Park’s playground in the early 1990s. Now she’s able to watch her granddaughter play in an updated version in Dreamland Park. The 18,000-square-foot playground, which opened in 2018, cost $1.3 million to produce. More than 1,200 volunteers from ages 3 to 88 took part in making the project possible; it replaced a wooden playground from 1992. A team of civic leaders drove the million-dollar mission, obtaining several $100,000 grants and assisting in construction.

Campground reservations ‘a shot in the dark’

Iowa’s state park campgrounds reservations are largely filled up on weekends in June and July, just as the unofficial kickoff to summer and camping season hits Monday, Memorial Day. This is the situation at most of the 72 campgrounds listed on the Department of Natural Resources website, according to an IowaWatch review Wednesday of each location. DNR counts more than 4,500 campsites. In 2020, Iowans flocked to state parks when many sought the outdoors for COVID-19-safe activities. In fact, 2020 set a record for park visitors with 16.6 million, according to the DNR.

As demand for COVID-19 vaccinations drops, one Iowa community nears herd immunity

Genesis Ramirez grips a digital timer, her legs swinging in a chair in the waiting room of the Meskwaki Tribal Health Center in Tama County, Iowa. The 17-year-old just got her second dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. But she didn’t do it just to keep herself safe. “My family is very high risk, and I don’t want to bring anything back to them where I can’t help them,” Ramirez said. Ramirez isn’t a member of the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi, also known as the Meskwaki Nation.

Non-English speakers get support understanding details of COVID vaccine

The Midwest is home to tens of thousands of immigrants — including refugees from countries like Myanmar, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Iraq. It has been a challenge to provide information about COVID-19 and vaccines to those who don’t speak English. 

The Johnson County Public Health Department in eastern Iowa has COVID-19 information available in about a half dozen languages. But Samuel Jarvis, who works for the department, said getting this translated information out during the pandemic can be really hard. “Because the information changes quickly. And really, it’s just — it has to be at a faster pace,” said Jarvis.

Weeks into vaccine rollout, some in Iowa worry about being left behind

Like many states, Iowa is now weeks into distributing the coronavirus vaccine to residents who are 65 or older. With vaccine demand still far outstripping supply, many Iowans are struggling to get an appointment and are frustrated. But some worry the state’s most vulnerable residents are also at risk for getting left behind. 

Chuck Betts is 74 and lives in eastern Iowa. He says getting an appointment to get vaccinated was anything but easy. He started by calling 2-1-1.