Vote Of 12-6
Aims To Avoid
By The State
In a special called meeting Thursday, the Greene County Commission voted 12-to-6 to agree to a no-cost, six-month option on 54.9 acres of land that could be the site of a new "justice center."
As being considered, a justice center would include a detention center, or jail, for incarcerating hundreds of inmates, but also have new courtrooms and related offices, a new sheriff's office, parking, and space for expansion.
The same motion, made by Commissioner Bill Moss, a Republican, and seconded by Commissioner Bill Dabbs, a Democrat, authorized spending $20,000 for 80 to 90 "core borings" and preliminary environmental studies of the site.
County Sheriff Steve Burns told the commission he believes that the two actions, along with other work done since last winter by three county committees, will be enough to satisfy a Sept. 12 deadline set by the Tennessee Corrections Institute.
This past summer, after a series of inspections and meetings, a TCI jail inspector gave the county government until that date to have a plan in place to deal with various issues related to overcrowding at the Greene County Detention Center, or face loss of certification from the state.
Moss made the land option part of the motion. However, County Attorney Roger Woolsey said that it would be "putting the cart before the horse" to do core drillings without first agreeing to the purchase option that the county has been offered.
If the county eventually exercises its option and purchases the land, Woolsey noted that the owner has agreed to pay half of the cost of the core drillings and other studies. Moss and Dabbs then withdrew their motion and offered it again, including "agreeing to the option."
Hartman Property Off 11E
The property is owned by Kenneth Hartman and is located at the intersection of U.S. Highway 11E and Hal Henard Road. It currently is pasture land, with a small house.
No figures were discussed at the meeting, though several references were made at various points to an estimated figure of $40 million or more.
Voting in opposition were: Kevin Morrison, Alex Edens, Margaret Greenway, Clark Justis, Betty Alexander and Jan Kiker.
Three commissioners -- Sam Riley, Brenda Grogan and John Waddle Jr., were present for most of the discussion, but absent when the vote was taken almost two and a half hours after the 6 p.m. meeting began.
Morrison spoke against the project at length. He said the county government has come to depend on revenue generated from housing state and federal inmates to balance its general fund budget, and said the county needs to "ween itself" at least from the income from federal inmates.
Sheriff Burns said that if every federal inmate could be removed today, the detention center, or jail, it would still be overcrowded, would still face decertification, and a property tax increase would be required to make up about $1 million in lost revenue.
(Please see related article for additional highlights of the discussion.)
Consensus For New Site
Commissioner Jerry Weems, who voted for the motion, said before the vote that almost all of the members of the three commission committees that have been studying whether to build a new detention center, or jail, since last spring think that the county's best option is to build a new jail, courtrooms, sheriff's office and related facilities on a new site.
Weems served as chairman for a series of meetings over several months that involved the Law Enforcement Committee, the Courthouse/Workhouse Committee (which primarily deals with jail issues), and the Budget & Finance Committee.
Weems said the consensus of the members of those three committees is that the county government should work toward the option of a new Justice Center, if it can be done without a property tax increase, as Sheriff Burns thinks it can, by housing about 200 more federal or state inmates than the county currently houses.
County Mayor Alan Broyles said Thursday evening's meeting needed to be conducted as a workshop, so that commissioners who were not able to attend those meetings could be fully informed, as well as the general public. Several members of the public asked questions or made comments throughout the meeting, after being recognized by individual commissioners.
Sheriff Burns made a presentation about the plans, with help at times from Budget Director David Lawing and architect Dave Wright, who has been working with the committees on the project.
Burns said loss of certification could imperil a contract that the county government has with the state that limits the county's costs for medical expenses on prisoners in the Greene County Detention Center but who are technically in state custody, and could also lead to reductions in the reimbursement rate the county is paid for housing those prisoners.
The contract limits the county's liability for any one inmate's medical expenses to $1,000, the sheriff said. Burns said Greene County has had one inmate last year whose medical expenses would have cost the county $62,000 without the contract.
The sheriff said he knows of other counties that have had to absorb "hundreds of thousands of dollars" in inmate medical expenses for heart attacks, bypass surgery, and other medical procedures.
Before the vote, Commissioner Bill Brown said the vote was in essence spending $20,000 to avoid the possibility of having to bear much higher medical costs if certification is lost.
Brown said after the meeting that his vote to maintain certification does not necessarily mean that he will vote in favor of a new justice center.
Burns said there are no guarantees that the county's actions will satisfy the TCI, but said he will feel confident making the county's case in Nashville next month, armed with the purchase option for the land, various options and plans that the committee has worked on, and a funding mechanism based on agreements with the Tennessee Department of Corrections and the U.S. Marshal's Service.
Commissioner John Cox, who attended almost all of the committee meetings to discuss a possible new justice center, pointed out that the committees "have not agreed on any figures," nor has any agreement been reached on facility size, though several sizes and configurations have been studied and discussed.
Cox said that so far the committees have been "trying to meet the Sept. 12 deadline, to do something to prevent decertification."
He said Thursday evening's vote was to spend money to see if "property we might use" is actually suitable for a new justice center.