Lee County supervisors to hear jail consultant report on Monday

Caleb Bedillion, Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, Tupelo
·2 min read

Apr. 18—TUPELO — Lee County supervisors are paying a consultant $33,000 to tell them how many local jail beds they need — and on Monday, they'll find out what that money is getting them.

Supervisors are scheduled to hold a meeting at 9 a.m. Monday, and their meeting agenda shows that Wisconsin-based jail consultant Tom Weber is scheduled to address the board.

The county's elected leaders awarded Weber a contract in October 2020. Contract terms called for him to study the jail's incarceration numbers, both past and present, as well as the county's population, and to forecast how what size jail Lee County needs.

Jail consultant discussed for years

After efforts to construct or renovate the local jail collapsed in 2017, county leaders discussed hiring an outside consultant starting in 2018, but made no progress until last year.

Sheriff Jim Johnson has long complained that the local adult jail — built in 1997 — suffers from ailing heating, air, electrical and ventilation systems. The facility also houses the sheriff's administrative offices, and he believes these are too small.

Overcrowding has been another problem. The number of prisoners held at the jail has often exceeded the 200 or so beds available. Johnson has shown the ability to reduce overcrowding — typically by adjusting bail policies or forcing local municipalities to take prisoners to other jails in the region.

Weber's contract calls for him to examine how incarceration alternatives could alleviate overcrowding stresses.

Funding source remains uncertain

Whatever Weber concludes, it is not clear how supervisors will pay for any jail remedies. Earlier this year, supervisors proposed asking voters to approve a sales tax increase to pay for a new jail — but the Legislature would not provide the needed authority, with most local lawmakers opposing the idea.

One lawmaker said that if the sales tax plan went through, it could be burdensome for Lee County residents, especially given that several other special sales taxes are already in place in the county.

"It's going to tax those people out the sky," said Rep. Jerry Turner, R-Baldwyn.

At the time of it's proposal, however, local supervisors were staking all their hopes on the sales tax plan.

Current Board of Supervisors president Billy Joe Holland said that if local voters were to reject a sales tax increase, supervisors would simply drop deliberations on the jail.

"If they don't pass it, I guess we'll have to just wait till they (federal courts) force us to build one," Holland said in February, speaking about the jail.

With the possibility of a referendum now completely closed, supervisors likely face a property tax increase to fund renovations to the current jail or the construction of a new one.