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Iowa County Wants to Use COVID-19 Relief Money to Build New Jail

by Keith Sanders

On June 8, officials in Woodbury County, Iowa, voted unanimously to approve the use of money from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to help fund the construction of a new $65 million regional jail complex. The 110,000 square-foot facility will house 480 prisoners and provide space for four courtrooms and a county attorney’s office.

Originally, the county’s cost to build the new jail was $50 million, which was raised during a bond referendum in 2020. But according to reporting by IowaWatch, county supervisors announced that the cost had gone up due to inflation induced by the pandemic. They also disclosed that Woodbury County has less reserve funds than other counties in Iowa, thus needing to seek funding from other sources.

ARPA passed in early 2021 in order to provide economic relief to Americans amidst the coronavirus pandemic in the form of direct financial payments. The $1.9 trillion stimulus package was also supposed to stimulate the lagging U.S. economy. Money from ARPA was allocated to the states, which in turn dispersed it to counties and cities. Iowa received $4 billion.

The U.S. Treasury set specific guidelines for how states, cities, and counties could spend ARPA funds. IowaWatch reported that, “ARPA funds should by used to support public health expenditures, address negative economic harms to workers, households, small businesses and the public sector, provide premium pay to essential workers, and replace lost public sector revenue but all with the caveat losses must be a result of the COVID public health emergency.”

Although U.S. Treasury rules regarding ARPA spending do not include construction of correctional facilities, Woodbury County supervisors are prepared to make their case to the Treasury. The Iowa governor’s office is providing assistance to counties regarding ARPA compliance issues.

“ARPA is a lot to navigate through and guidance changes daily,” said Supervisor Niki Conrad of nearby Webster County. Webster hired an extra, part-time staff member dedicated solely to help with Treasury’s guidelines.

One of the provisions of ARPA allows cities and counties to make up for tax revenue lost to COVID-19 shutdowns and other pandemic-related reasons. IowaWatch noted that funds can be used to “directly or indirectly offset a reduction in tax revenues.”

Iowa’s governor, Kim Reynolds, indicated as much at an event touting her signing of a large bill to cut taxes. IowaWatch reported that portions of the new bill phase out “state property tax backfill.” However, Pat Garrett, the governor’s communications director, related via an email to IowaWatch that phasing out the backfill “is not a tax cut so not sure how the ARPA provision applies.”

Butler told IowaWatch that if Woodbury County could not use ARPA money to build the jail, then he would seek to siphon off leftover funds from the earlier Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES).

But IowaWatch cautioned that the Treasury “will claw back funds if misappropriated in error or by design.”

For instance, Oklahoma had to return $15 million to the Treasury after transferring $40 million from CARES to a failing jail. Governor Reynolds also had to give back $21 million of CARES funding after using the money to purchase a new computer system for the state’s human resources department.

Local residents of Woodbury County have organized against the proposed use of COVID relief money for the jail. Trisha Etringer, a member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska and the director of operations for the Great Plains Action Society, said the funding could be better used to care for the homeless community. “The prison itself represents the school to prison pipeline,” she said, “this is not anything that is going to really benefit our community.”

It is not clear yet if the Treasury will allow Woodbury County to proceed, but one way or another the new jail will be built. If the county is barred from using COVID relief money, the $50 million bond referendum authorized a tax increase anyway.

Editor’s note: While some political commentators have decried a purported movement to “defund the police,” the reality is that both the Trump and Biden administrations have been shoveling tax money hand over fist to the American police state at every level since the COVID pandemic started: cops, jails and prisons are awash in funds. Very much a replay of the federal bailout in 2008-09 during the financial crisis when, within days of taking office, President Obama and then Vice President Biden were sending billions to prop up prisons and jails around the country. Whatever the health, infrastructure or educational needs of the U.S. may be, having a well-funded police and carcereal state is the most important governmental priority. 



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