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.

Amid protests and change, Iowa police training on implicit bias varies

In 2015, the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy lacked training on implicit bias. As a cadet there then, Natasha Greene sought discussions on her own about some of the mistaken beliefs officers might hold of others, such as expecting a black person to be dangerous or more crime prone from stereotypes, ideas that could come from television or passed from family and friends. Now an Iowa State Police Department officer, Greene said these conversations were uncomfortable, as awkward as telling someone the zipper on their pants is down but you still do it. 

“If I’m talking to somebody I care about and their fly’s down, of course I’m going to tell them their fly’s down because it would be more harmful for me to just let them carry on without knowing,” Greene said. Today those discussions are more serious and more uncomfortable as the May 2020 death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police brought the Black Lives Matter movement and calls for defunding police. Implicit bias and training officers became part of the national conversation.

IowaWatch Connection Podcast: Understanding And Reducing Gun Violence In Iowa

President Barack Obama’s recent executive orders on gun access and control reignited debates over how to rein in gun violence. There’s a perception that gun violence in Iowa is worse than ever. The number of shootings in Iowa’s major cities is increasing, but law enforcement says it’s due to a small number of people.

News Quiz: Texting While Driving

Iowa legislators are taking another look at legislation to prohibit cellphone use while driving, in an effort to give more teeth to the current texting law. Last year, legislation that proposed making texting while driving a primary offense, meaning law enforcement officials could pull drivers over for texting alone, died in the Iowa House. Test your knowledge on the current texting law and the bill proposed by the Iowa Department of Public Safety.