The Lee County Board of Health signed a three-year lease with the Iowa Department of Corrections for use of a portion of the former Iowa State Penitentiary in downtown Fort Madison.
The Lee County Health Department will take control of the administration portion of the former John Bennett Unit on June 15.
Health Department Administrator Julie Schilling hopes her staff will be moved in within the next week or so after working out of the North Lee County Office building in Fort Madison for the past two months.
The former prison site became available when the DOC stopped housing minimum security inmates with work release privileges there a couple months ago to save money.
Schilling said she’d received several phone calls from residents suggesting the former prison as a home for the health department. She said the discussions picked up after the DOC vacated the site and after Lee County residents rejected a plan to build a new health department building.
“We also had people call in and suggest that we look at other sites as well, and we looked at them as well,” said Schilling. “We looked at several different sites in Donnellson, Montrose, Fort Madison, and then the John Bennet [Unit] and it so seemed like the John Bennett [Unit] was a good site for us because of the square footage.”
Schilling said the new location is roughly twice the size of the department’s former location at 2218 Avenue H in Fort Madison.
“It has a layout for us to have some single offices, some double offices and larger offices for the staff that work in different programs to be grouped together,” said Schilling.
The additional space does come with a higher price tag.
Schilling said the new location will cost the county $8,000-$10,000 more per year for the next three years for rent, utilities, and other expenses compared to what the health department had been paying for the Avenue H location.
The immediate need for a new health department building surfaced in April when then County Attorney Ross Braden recommended employees vacate the 2218 Avenue H location. He eventually said it was due to concerns about the air quality in the building.
The county conducted an air quality study. Schilling said a redacted version of the results of that study will be released to the public as soon as the redacting is complete.
She said the county has informed the owner of the 2218 Avenue H location that it will be terminating the lease as soon as legally possible.