Commissioners near decision time on $30 million jail expansion

Feb. 7—The latest cost estimate for plans to double the county jail capacity was unveiled by the county this week during a public hearing to gauge public support for the project.

The county rejected a $28 million bid last year and went back to the drawing board in hopes of finding cost savings. The new construction estimate is now $27.5 million, but $2.5 million in architect and engineering fees peg the total project cost at $30 million, County Manager Bryant Morehead told the board of commissioners Monday.

County commissioners held a public hearing Monday to seek input on the jail expansion. Two members of the public showed up and spoke against the expansion plan.

One was Susan Trahan, who listed five reasons for her position, including the fact details on the project cost, and operational plans weren't provided prior to the hearing.

She also questioned whether the cost of transporting overflow prisoners to a jail in another county would be more cost effective.

"Surely it's less expensive to buy and staff a vehicle or two than to build and staff a jail," she said.

Trahan noted that a larger jail would require more staff and overhead, another cost taxpayers would have to absorb. During a time when there are limited resources for mental health issues, she said the money required for the jail could be better spent on "people who are contributing to society, not the detained members of society."

A second speaker at the hearing was Joslyn Schaefer, who also spoke against the jail expansion. She highlighted the beginning successes of the recovery court model as a way to rehabilitate offenders in lieu of incarceration. She wondered whether community partnerships could be used to help determine other ways of addressing spikes in the jail population.

She said she was sympathetic to the statements made by the previous speaker about not wanting her tax dollars to go to jail construction and operation.

Jail population spikes could be an "invitation for us to do a self examination as a community when it gets to the point we're having to ship prisoners out to be cared by other jurisdictions," she suggested.

Later in the meeting, Sheriff Bill Wilke was invited to speak, and he noted mental health and jail expansion funding are not mutually exclusive.

"I'd ask as you consider this, remember that we don't decide how long a person stays in jail," Wilke said. "The time they are in there, they are clean, healthy and well fed, something they don't get in the outside world. I view it as an investment in our community."

Wilke said about 10% of those in the Haywood jail spend time in the alcohol or narcotics programs, which "provides a place where people get a restart — a shot at life," he said.

The rest are headed for prison to be held accountable for their crimes, he added.

More details to come

Specifics on the cost of adding 146 new beds to the existing jail aren't entirely known yet, other than that $500,000 has been shaved off. More details will be available before the commissioners make a nonbinding vote on whether to proceed with the project at their next meeting on Feb. 18.

Commissioner Terry Ramey asked about jail operating costs, as well as other expenses that could be associated with the project.

Morehead said the operating costs would depend on how quickly the additional beds need to be opened.

Morehead described the site for the jail as "very tight." The existing jail and sheriff' office located off Brown Avenue in Hazelwood adjoin county property used for convenience center, maintenance facility and garage.

A time may come when one or more of these facilities will need to be relocated, Morehead indicated.

Commissioner Jennifer Best asked Wilke to provide the latest statistics on the number of individuals that need to be transported to other facilities when the jail is full, something Wilke said he'd have by the next meeting.

Commissioners will vote on the initial findings resolution at the 5:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 19, meeting. As always, there is a public comment period before each commissioner meeting where individuals have up to 3 minutes to speak out on an issue.

The resolution under consideration will authorize the selection of bond counsel, financial advisors and other steps to move forward on the jail upgrade.

Plans currently call for making minor maintenance improvements to the existing 109-bed jail, tie it in with the new 146-bed facility and complete other landscaping and project needs.