Commish: Work Release building purchase not without interference

The White County Commissioners have purchased property that may help to alleviate the delay in processing individuals through community corrections. Commissioners claim the purchase did not come without some interference from an elected official, though the Sheriff claims that is not true.

On April 19, the commissioners approved hiring two appraisers to determine the fair market value of a piece of real estate within the county. At the time the location of the property was not disclosed. The News & Review has learned that the property in question is located at 306 North Main St., the Bayer building, the same property purchased recently by the County for the work release program.

Jail closes work release program

At the same meeting, White County Superior Court Judge Brad Woolley appealed to the commissioners for help concerning the county’s work release program “falling behind.” Woolley asked the commissioners and the White County Council to “make it a priority to find a building for a work release program. The program was removed from the Sheriff’s Department because of COVID and lack of space,” according to minutes from the meeting.

Woolley told the commissioners that “he wants to see the program put back into place because putting offenders on probation or in-home detention is not working for White County,” according to the minutes.

At that meeting, Commissioner David Diener asked Woolley what happened to the area in the jail where the program used to be. Woolley told the commissioners that the jail is outdated and needs to be changed. “With COVID, the work release area had to be used to quarantine inmates.”

Diener commented that the annual jail reports show that, “there has never been a deficiency in space at the jail since the building was built.”

White County Sheriff Bill Brooks says it is true that the jail has annual jail reports do not show a deficiency in what the jail can provide but claims that the jail is not providing enough for inmates.

“He’s talking apples and oranges,” Brooks said of Diener. “The (Indiana Department of Correction) gives grant money to help pay for programs such as work release, community corrections, and counseling. The IDOC quit giving us money because we don’t have the space (to offer the programs) so we are not getting grants.”

Circuit Court Judge Jason Thompson said there are several reasons the work release program was closed.

“For a couple of years now we have been working to try to get work release back up and running,” he said. “In 2019, (the jail) was running out of room for work release purposes and the Sheriff needed that space for other purposes, and then COVID completely shut everything down.”

Thompson said there was also an issue of “a lot of contraband coming in and out of the jail through individuals sentenced to the work release program.”

“With all the new guidelines that the jail has to abide by because of the DOC (work release) won’t be able to go back in there,” he said.

Brooks added that the IDOC had given the County a grant to provide a work release program in the past, however since the program is no longer being offered, they will not renew the grant. Money received by the county previously for years that a work release program was not offered does not have to be paid back to the IDOC, he said.

“When our jail was built 24 years ago it was built before court-ordered counseling, so no rooms were ever designed,” Brooks said. “It was also before preclassification. White County needs approximately 12 classifications (violent offenders, women, child molesters, etc.). We currently have five and sometimes six. We have five murder suspects in the jail right now; three of them were on one case. How do you keep them separate?

“On top of that, the number of deputies at the jail has increased by 10 in 24 years. We are running out of administration space. All space at the jail is premium. At the present time, White County is in the medium risk for COVID, and jails are held to a higher standard. We are still under the gun at the jail.”

Brooks previously told the News & Review he was unable to allow those sentenced to work release to serve weekends in the jail due to protocols imposed on his department by the IDOC that require quarantining any individuals who enter the jail for the first time, or those who experience COVID symptoms. That protocol was lifted as COVID numbers declined in the County, but a recent COVID outbreak at the jail has necessitated the need to reinstate closing the jail to work release.

White County Prosecutor Bob Guy said that in March of 2020, during the early days of COVID, he, along with then Judge Bob Mrzlack, and Brooks “collectively agreed that it was the appropriate thing (to close the work release program temporarily). I had no belief or was there any discussion that at any point this would be a permanent closure of the work release portion of the jail,” Guys said. “We had adequate space for work release all the way up until COVID and Sheriff Brooks determined that we no longer could utilize the jail for work release purposes. No one had ever discussed there was a space issue or housing issue that would exclude (work release), and we still don’t have it today.”

Judicial impacts

The elimination of the work release program has significantly impacted the White County judicial system according to local judges and the prosecutor.

“By not allowing work release to start back up it has impacted the judicial system greatly in a very negative way,” Guy said. “My personal view is that the position that the sheriff took that work release would never go back in the existing jail forced the hands of the commissioners and others in the process to find a building, which is what he wanted all along.

“The fact that we have not had (work release) as an alternative has caused many defendants to be sentenced to something much less of a sanction than they deserved, or the victims of their crimes deserved.”

Third Party

At a Special Meeting on April 26, the commissioners voted to make a conditional offer to purchase the Bayer building, though the address was not included in the minutes.

“As some of you may be aware, at our most recent regular meeting a request was made on behalf of the Community Corrections Advisory Board that the commissioners look into a work release facility because the work release program had been eliminated from our jail by the White County Sheriff,” Diener said at the meeting. “In doing our due diligence to consider a separate facility, we discovered that several elected officials that are statutory members of the Community Corrections Board took it upon themselves to engage with a third-party to acquire the same property we were asked to consider, and the third-party bid on the same property recommended by these elected officials.

“Without public notice or any discussion with the commissioners or Council, the third-party misrepresented to the realty agent that the bid was on behalf of these elected officials seeking a work release facility, causing the realty agent to believe the bid was on behalf of the County. To our surprise, the realty agent was quite confused when he learned that the attorney he had been speaking with about the pending bid was not the County Attorney.

Diener said the Special Meeting was necessitated so that the commissioners could respond to the third-party bid in a timely fashion, “as we are now in a position of bidding against the third-party solicited to work against us in acquiring the very building we were asked by the Community Corrections Board to consider as a solution to the work release problem.”

He stated that the commissioners are the only ones that can acquire property for the County, “so it seems the third-party would anticipate somehow forcing this facility on the County in some fashion after the acquisition and or modification.”

Brooks said he is the one Diener referenced at the meeting.

“I was contacted about this building last year; however, the commissioners were going to build a new building and were in the process,” Brooks said. The architect had been chosen; we were in the designing phase of it. There were several meetings including commissioners, judges, and the sheriff, all the entities were involved, and it was moving forward and then (the commissioners) pulled the rug out from under out it.”

Brooks claims around March of this year, he reached out to the county officials about the Bayer building.

“I thought about this building, and I contacted two commissioners and four county council members,” he said. “That was about the last I heard about it. I notified them of (the Bayer building) and then no communication back with me.

“Then I got contacted by a third person of a local company who heard about this and said, ‘What if we bought it, fix it up how you need it, and lease or sell it back to you?’”

The third-party Brooks says was local businessman Jeff VanWeelden.

Thompson said that members of a community corrections board building committee were approached by (VanWeelden and or his representatives) and “they believed if they did a public-private partnership they could remodel (the Bayer building) cheaper than the County could.”

“That is another option, why wouldn’t you at least explore it,” Brooks said. “You don’t have the government red tape; you don’t have the government bids. They just have to design it to how we want it. Brooks said he was approached about the offer the first day (VanWeelden) looked at the building.

“I asked them, do you mind if we come and show you what we had in mind? The next thing I know, the county is now stepping up to buy it. I don’t know if they ever met with (VanWeelden’s) company. And then the April 26 meeting where (Diener) made the accusation.”

VanWeelden declined to comment on the matter.

The listing agent for the building, Josh Deno of Coldwell Banker Commercial in Lafayette, said during the purchase of the Bayer building

“there was definitely some confusion,” but said he did not tell the commissioners that he had been misled.

“I think there was a lot of miscommunication there,” Deno said. “There was no involvement with the County to the third-party offer.”

Deno says in fact, he reached out to the commissioners in November when he first listed the property for sale.

“I tried contacting the County back in November when I first listed (the building). I couldn’t get a hold of any no and one responded,” he said.

Deno said he received an offer on the building in March or April of this year from a buyer, now known to be VanWeelden. At the time, he says, the buyer did not disclose a “hard intent” on what they were hoping to use the building for. He said the commissioners came to him on their own to purchase the building, though he could not recall when.

The original listing price of the property was $995,000. Deno declined to disclose the third-party offer on the building. The County paid $980,000 for the building.

Phillips said, “I’m not aware of anyone misrepresenting themselves from the advisory board. I did not have any dealings or communications with the third-party that made the offer, so I don’t think that is accurate.”

Guy believes that “community corrections was held hostage to get the building purchased.

“The expense of the building is minimal compared to the additional staffing that it is going to require around the clock,” he said. “You are talking about an incredible expense to the taxpayers. Grant money is not free. Taxpayers pay that money.”

“Even if this was an alternative that is the appropriate way for the future of White County, we shouldn’t have eliminated work release while the process was ongoing,” Guys said.

This was the not first building Brooks and others had looked at. Thompson, who is chairperson of the community corrections advisory board, said the community correction board created a building committee that included, himself, Monticello Mayor Cathy Gross, Jim Annis, Brooks, Chris Phillips, vice-chairperson of the community corrections advisory board, and Woolley. The committee had in some form looked at other properties with the potential to renovate property into a work release building.

Brooks said those included the old jail, the theater, the 24/7 Fitness building on Country Lane, and potentially a pod system to be placed on the current jail property.

“They would put (the pod system) at the jail. It comes in on trailers and hooks together and it is any design you want,” Brooks said. “It sets on a cement slab or whatever you want. You can lease or buy it. It was at a cost of around $950,000.”

Gross, who is a member of the community corrections board, said that while she was a part of the building committee, she was not present when Brooks went on his tour.

“As a matter of fact, part of our building committee had wanted to meet (at the Bayer building) with the realtor, and we had planned to meet there, and we showed up they said they had already shown it to the County, so that came as a surprise to those members who tried to set up the tour. It is my understanding that there was a group (of building committee members) that went out on their own. I cannot say what their intent was. I can tell you that later when the commissioners became involved we all took a tour and I felt like (the building) was a good fit.

Gross said that she believes building committee members who showed up to see the building that day but were not able, were Woolley, Jim Annis, and Melinda Provo, who was representing the probation department.

“The next thing I heard the county commissioners were working to acquire the property for community correction and support that,” she said.

Beneficial purchase

Woolley said he is “excited for the possibility this center will bring to our community.”

“The building can be used not only for community correction, and house arrest but also for educational substance abuse meetings. We can also potentially look at a mental health facility and those are things that need to be thoroughly thought out by our community leaders,” he said. “I would like to see the city’s input into this project also. We might be able to share funding of projects, programs, and other needs that a small community like ours endures.

“A works release center will provide another tool in evaluating the appropriate sentence for someone who has been convicted of a crime. We can also keep those individuals away from people, places, and things that might have a drug or substance abuse user go back to his or her old ways.”

Thompson agreed.

“On behalf of the Community Corrections Advisory Board, I am ecstatic that our county levels of government are working together to get a work release facility,” he said. “We want to understand the growth potential there is for people to serve their crimes, and to serve their time but still be able to work to be productive for their families.”

The top priority for Brooks is mental health counseling for inmates.

“First and foremost, we have to get this mental health and work release back into White County,” he said. “We need to move them to that building, and we can get counseling services in the jail. We have been emptying closets for attorney-client meetings. We have tried to move to Zoom, so rooms have been turned into Zoom rooms for the court and inmate transactions.”

Guy said, “I believe work release is a very important component in the sentencing that the court and prosecutors have. I am glad that we are going to again at some point in the future have work release as an alternative to other possible means of incarceration. Now that it has been purchased and once we have work release back as a sentencing alternative it will be beneficial.”

Gross, who is a member of the community correction board, said she is happy with the move forward.

“We need to do this as a community,” she said. “We receive funding to do this. It is the law if we receive the funds, we have to provide these services, but basically, it is just the right thing to do.”

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