County approves funding for medical wing at jail

By Lucas Lord

During its Jan. 13 meeting, the Cass County Commissioners approved the design and construction of a new 5,000-square-foot medical wing in the county jail. The project is estimated to cost between $2.8 and $3.2 million.

“We have done a lot protocol wise, but what we don’t have is additional room or adequate negative air pressure cells to mitigate the spread of communicable diseases like COVID-19,” Cass County Sheriff Jeff Weber said. “The design of the jail doesn’t lend itself to this type of a process.

“Our medical unit, with the limited negative air pressure cells we have, are contained within the heart of the jail meaning anybody with a communicable disease has to walk through the halls and pass all the cells, potentially exposing others. We would like to move that capacity to the exterior portion of the jail.”

While Weber said the jail has been fortunate enough to avoid a major outbreak of COVID, he said it is an increasing concern as case rates soar in the county.

“We’ve asked TreanorHL, (the architectural firm designing the addition) if they would go ahead and design the expansion for the needed medical negative air pressure cells so we can continuously and safely deal with communicable disease s,” Weber said. “We would ask that the commission consider spending some of our ARPA (American Rescue Project Act) funds on this project. They have returned a cost for their portion of the work at $304,000. They have estimates that the total cost of the work would be anywhere from $2.8 to $3.2 million based on previous work at the jail, but we can’t take that next step until we have some design concepts and cost analysis. We don’t get that without first reaching an agreement with TreanorHL and that’s what we are here to ask for today.”

When completed, the medical processing addition will be large enough to accommodate 24 persons in negative- pressure rooms. The project also includes a renovation of the booking area to include a drive-thru sallyport large enough to accommodate four vehicles.

“We continue to look for creative ways (to contain outbreaks), but we know with ARPA funds available this would be an opportune time to address those long-term needs for the jail,” Weber said. “If it wasn’t COVID, then it would be tuberculosis or (something else).”

The commission unanimously approved the medical wing project.

“The projects the sheriff just presented are tailor made for use with ARPA funding,” said Jack Reagan, a consultant hired by the county. “After recent rule changes, you are now allowed to make a one-time deduction of up to $10 million in ARPA funding and mark it as revenue loss with no questions asked. However, you aren’t allowed to spend funds on tax breaks, pension contributions, lawsuits, claims, judgments or debt payments. Other than that, the funds can be spent on any governmental function you deem fit, which presents the commission considerable flexibility to be really transformational in the community.”

Another use of ARPA funds will be spent renovating the space where the Belton Inn previously stood. Demolition of the former hotel at 107 E. 155 St., Belton, started Tuesday morning.

“The department has planned for some years now to build an annex up north,” Weber said. “The county had the foresight to go ahead and purchase that and start the remediation process for the asbestos in there and the ventilation of such. We think this meets the needs and or requirements of ARPA when it comes to bringing much needed services to a blighted area of our county.”

With over half the population of Cass County residing in the north, Weber told the commission the station will serve as the gateway into the county.

“(The annex could serve as a place) for police services like making police reports or filing for a concealed weapon. We even talked about having another office to maintain a presence up there for people who can’t drive down to the courthouse to register to vote or to pay a tax,” he said. “I think it would be a worthwhile expense to make through ARPA funds in such an economically blighted area.”