Public opposition to jail expansion is a day late and dollar short

Mar. 20—Two weeks after the Haywood County Board of Commissioners voted to proceed with a $31 million jail expansion project, several members of the public turned up at a county meeting to express their displeasure with the size and cost.

"I want to make sure every county resident knows their tax will be going up to pay for this project that may not even be needed," said Janet Presson, who called the project a "ridiculous waste of tax dollars."

The expansion will more than double the size of the jail from 109 to 255 beds, though the county has not hit its current jail capacity in at least a year.

There were only two speakers at an official public hearing on the project six weeks ago. This week, however, half a dozen speakers showed up — despite a vote two weeks that set the wheels in motion to obtain loan financing.

Though commissioners thanked the group for showing up, they recounted the many years of meetings and discussions that brought the board to this point.

But Sherri Morgan said the public has questions they want answered, such as the supposed plan to house inmates from other counties that are short on jail space of their own.

"The existing jail has been running below capacity," said Morgan. "With all the additional space you are building, what is the plan for the unused capacity? Do we want criminals from other counties filling our new detention center?"

Speaker Trudi Schmitt questioned the additional cost to taxpayers of hiring more jailers to staff the much larger jail.

"Hopefully you will address what we are really going to pay for this jail," Schmitt said. "What are the taxes actually going to be?"

Monday, a contract in the amount of $27.4 million was approved for Vannoy Construction to handle the expansion project. Other costs included insurance and bonding, the construction manager at risk fee, professional services and a contingency.

The board also approved the $31 million capital project ordinance. Revenues for the project include a $5 million state grant, and a loan of $26 million.

The annual payments will be equivalent to about 2 cents on the property tax rate based on current property values, though it doesn't mean property taxes would go by that much.

Moving forward

Both Commissioners Brandon Rogers and Jennifer Best were not present at Monday's meeting for the construction contract vote, but had indicated earlier they were in support, Commissioner Chairman Kevin Ensley said. County commissioners Terry Ramey, Tommy Long and Ensley all voted to approve the contract.

Ramey had previously voted against the project in general — casting the lone "no" vote two weeks ago on seeking financing — because it wasn't the right time to spend this much money.

"It would have been different if the statistics had had showed me we were hauling people to other jails and we were short space," Ramey said. "I was elected to look after people's tax money, and that's what I'm gonna do. I'm not against public safety. I voted against it because I think it's the wrong time."

Later in the meeting, it was noted the jail population has now risen above 90 and is expected to continue to grow in the post-Covid economy.

On the construction vote, Ramey said he would be voting for it. That's because the decision has already been made to move forward, and he wanted a qualified firm to get the job done and provide a quality end product.

Board addresses concerns

Another speaker, Eldon Adamson, told the commissioners he had just heard about the addition of the "$28 million 5-star hotel."

"I thought all was subject to this manual," he said, holding up the Bible. "If you follow how to treat law breakers, the remedy is in here."

In cases of stealing, thieves were to repay what they stole, and a second time, twice what they stole. "The third time, you strike out and if you could not pay, you were sold into slavery," he said, claiming there was no such thing as long-term prison sentences in the Bible.

Adamson said the jail expansion "seems like a real burden when there are remedies."

Presson said she would have spoken at the meeting two weeks ago, but it wasn't clear on the county's agenda. The meeting agenda only mentioned "approving an installment financing contract."

"It literally said nothing about the jail. I am sure I am not the only citizen who missed this meeting due to the vague agenda item," Presson said. "Was this on purpose due to the fact the project is too expensive and too controversial? I would bet it is intentional."

The commissioners pushed back when it came to addressing those who may have been unaware of the project or insinuated the board was trying to keep information from the public.

"This is the most transparent board around," Commissioner Chairman Kevin Ensley said. "We always get comments on how transparent we are. To say we're trying to hide something, well, Tommy will go over that."

Several weeks ago, Commissioner Tommy Long requested a timeline for the meetings and their subject matter that had been held concerning the jail project.

He said the board met a total of 16 times starting Nov. 2, 2020, when a needs assessment was on the agenda, to discuss the jail.

He outlined the basics covered at each meeting since that time, and said there were additional work sessions and even a jail tour leading up to the final decision.

The meetings involved the ill-fated 2023 bidding process where the financing had been secured, but the lone bid came in at a price that exceeded the available funding by $7 million more than the architect estimate.

The experience prompted the board to pursue another option — construction manager at risk where the construction company would guaranteed a final price. The Vannoy option came in slightly below the 2023 bid of $28 million from Hickory Construction.

One advantage was an improved finance option. The county's 'AA+' credit rating from S&P Global Ratings allowed Haywood to obtain financing at 3.514%, which beat last year's rate of 3.71%.

Long said cutting the project size in half would not reduce the costs by half, which was one of the issues that emerged at a work session. In fact, that action would tie the hands of future boards because this would be the last time the county could build on the Brown Avenue site.

"At the public hearing, the sheriff said his hands were tied when it came to doing huge drug roundups or DUI checks because there was no place to put them when they were caught," Long said. "Another takeaway was that at 80% capacity, it's time to start thinking about building."