What to Expect for New Jail Construction Referendums

The initial need for new jail construction is often recognized by the sheriff, jail administrators, and those caring for inmates. From there, the task of getting county board members, commissioners, and the community on board begins.

Undertaking such a project can be daunting, especially when the added complexity of a referendum or needing to obtain community buy-in comes into play. This article will cover what to expect as part of the referendum process and critical steps that need to be taken to ensure that all stakeholders are fully informed before they cast their votes.

RELATED: Guide to Jail Construction Planning

What is a Referendum?

Before we go further, it’s important to distinguish how a referendum works. A referendum is a voting process that seeks approval from electorates on a specific project or proposal, such as a new jail building or other municipal project that will impact taxpayers and require bond funds. A majority of voters must approve the project in order for it to pass, after which the project can proceed. Iowa, for example, holds referendum votes.

Not all states require referendums for a new jail, however. Wisconsin laws, for example, grant county supervisors the right to approve most capital projects on behalf of the constituents who elected them. 

Whether a district requires a referendum or not, county officials still need to ensure that any decisions they make meet with the approval of their constituents and the community as a whole

RELATED: 8 Major Jail Construction Challenges and Considerations

Understanding the 3 Steps of the Referendum Process

There are multiple phases and elements of a referendum process, but they can basically be broken down into three categories: need, solution, and cost.

Those are the basic elements that both the county board and community members want to know so that they can make an informed decision. All too often, incomplete information — or misinformation — in any of these categories leads to dissention and failed referendums.

Just as important as creating consensus among voters is first making sure you have consensus among board members and commissioners. They should ideally be in 100% agreement that something needs to be done, making for a higher likelihood of success. 

These factors stress the importance of working with a construction manager who has experience in the jail construction industry and the referendum process. They will guide the project and ensure that all the necessary facts have been gathered and help build consensus. They will also be deeply involved in properly communicating the need, solution, and cost to all stakeholders. 

1. Identify the Need

One of the first steps when starting a new jail construction project is to form a building committee, gather facts, and obtain approval from the board or commissioners to conduct a study of the existing facility’s conditions.

Understanding the shortcomings of an existing facility helps to identify whether it’s best to renovate, build new, or do nothing. A facility assessment will expose any existing conditions that are of concern and those that may be acceptable for both the interior and exterior of a building. This comprehensive report will show whether there are any compliance violations, structural issues, roof leaks, improper firewalls, security vulnerabilities related to fixtures or equipment, and much more.

Once the study is completed, preliminary findings and recommendations to address critical needs can be determined.

2. Identify the Solution

Based on the existing conditions report, options are explored to help determine the best solution. At this juncture, the construction manager will work alongside an architectural firm to draw up designs and drawings and also provide preliminary cost projections. Sometimes the construction manager will provide architectural drawings depending on the scope of services they provide

Some questions that may be answered during this stage might include whether to have a podular vs. linear jail design, where to place booking and receiving, and whether to use prefabricated jail cells vs. traditional construction

RELATED: Who to Hire First? An Architect vs. Construction Manager

3. Identify the Cost

The biggest questions that voters typically have is how much a new facility will cost and its tax implications. The construction manager will leverage the expertise of a jail construction estimator to provide a price range based on real-time cost estimates. If cost isn’t considered as part of the solution stage, it will be an uphill battle. 

If the cost of a project means the average taxpayer will need to dish out an additional $300 each year in property taxes, for example, there’s little chance of such a referendum being passed.

Part of the role of a construction manager is to work with an audit team to determine how a project will impact taxes. They’ll help to ensure that any proposed plans stay in line with budgets by taking a community’s culture, demographics, and other factors into consideration, like the attitudes of rural versus urban voters. This is where experience really is invaluable; a construction manager who has navigated the process before will have a better idea of how certain communities might respond, which questions they might ask, and what scope will be more achievable.

Communicate the Findings

Once the governing body that oversees the project identifies the need, solution, and cost, they will make a preliminary decision on whether to seek a referendum.

A lot of work still needs to be done prior to communicating information to the public, however. One of the biggest mistakes a planning committee can make is going through all the work of determining the need, solution, and cost only to fail to properly inform their constituents. Sending out a couple postcards and holding a town hall meeting simply won’t suffice.

Developing and deploying a comprehensive communication strategy must be part of the referendum process. Typically, there’s a 90-day window between releasing information to the public and voting time. During that time, a construction manager should be equipped and ready to provide the following pre-referendum services to help ensure that residents truly understand what they’re voting for or against:

  • Facility drawings, 3D visuals, and fly-through demonstrations 
  • Ensuring that referendum questions are clearly stated and understood
  • Presenting and answering questions at multiple (6–12) community meetings
  • Creating a project-specific website containing FAQs, costs, drawings, etc.
  • Establishing and managing a social media presence
  • Advertising
  • Educational materials (e.g., news releases, mailers, informational packets)
  • Consultation for conducting media interviews
  • Participation in forums, events, speaking engagements, and networking opportunities 
  • And more

When a proposed new facility is in line with a community’s goals and the information is properly communicated, there’s a higher likelihood that a referendum will pass. As an example, one county in Iowa had already gone through three failed referendums to build a new jail. After switching to a specialty construction manager who helped oversee the project and deployed a strategic communication plan, the fourth attempt received 75% voter approval even in light of an increased budget.

In the end, however, it’s not the job of the planning committee or the construction manager to convince taxpayers to vote yes or no for a project; it’s their job to educate them so they understand the project and can make an informed decision based on factual data when they go to vote.

The Samuels Group specializes in jail and other government facility construction and has helped facilitate numerous referendums. If you’re in need of a new facility but aren’t sure where to start, contact our experts. We’re here to help.

Also be sure to download our Jail Planning Guide below with additional considerations and helpful information.Guide to Jail Construction Planning

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