A $5.3 million project seeking to convert the St. Croix County jail's gymnasium into a mental health wing cleared its first hurdle last week.

The project was part of a three-pronged proposal that would also replace the county's mobile command vehicle and upgrade the St. Croix County Government Center's heating and air conditioning system.

The St. Croix County Public Protection and Judiciary Committee passed the $8.2 million combined funding request at its Friday, April 2 meeting. The proposal, which County Administrator Pat Thompson said will require borrowing money by issuing government bonds, will next be considered April 15 by the Administration Committee.

St. Croix County Sheriff Scott Knudson told committee members last week the jail request will address ongoing concerns involving "special needs" inmates, many of whom are experiencing mental health struggles. He said the new 10-cell unit would also be used for inmates going through substance withdrawal symptoms.

Plans calls for an overhaul to the jail's gym, which would be turned into a two-tiered unit with five cells each on upper and lower levels. Scott Fettig, an architect for the project, said the unit's features are deliberately meant to keep those inmates separate from others locked up in the jail.

Knudson said those features would also limit problematic interactions, such as escorting inmates to the showers.

There have been several assaults on staff and contracted workers in recent months, Knudson said.

"It's been a challenge," he said.

Plans call for each cell to be equipped with its own shower, in addition to high ceilings to keep inmates from tampering with equipment.

Fettig explained other jail upgrades that would be part of the project include outfitting an intake cell with padded walls and adding drains to other cells. Walkways in the mental health unit's upper area would be enclosed in mesh to prevent inmates from jumping or throwing staff from the elevated portion, he said.

Knudson said the expanded unit would also mean two to three more jail deputies.

"Staffing is going to have to accompany that," he said. "Without question, we need to add some resources."

The second part of the funding request calls for $2.5 million in upgrades to the government center's heating, ventilation and air conditioning system. A portion of that work must be done to accommodate the new jail wing, while the project will replace obsolete equipment throughout the building and include a new control system.

The third prong of the request calls for $398,000 to replace the county's mobile command vehicle.

Emergency Support Services Director Steve T'Kach said the existing vehicle is 20 years old and is rusting from years of being stored outdoors. The new unit would be stored indoors on the highway department building's concrete floor, he said.

Features on the proposed 33-foot vehicle include a $20,000 slide-out section for more space and a pneumatic mast, upon which a camera could be mounted. Emergency Communications Manager Terry Anderson said the current setup requires someone to climb atop the vehicle to manually raise the mast. He said that can be dangerous.

Thompson recommended bundling the three items in one funding request.

"This project is all inclusive and really should be done together," he told committee members.

The committee did not discuss the request before unanimously approving it. The Administration Committee meets at 5 p.m. Monday, April 15, though the agenda had not been released as of April 8.