14-7 Vote 'Puts Us
Right Back To
BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
Progress made to resolve crowding at the Greene County Detention Center made an abrupt about-face back to "square one" during Monday evening's meeting of the Greene County Commission.
Both a vote to increase the county Litigation Tax by $25 to help pay for law enforcement-related capital debt (such as the building of a jail) and a vote to build a jail on a green site failed during Monday evening's meeting at the Greene County Courthouse.
The commission agreed at their June meeting that finding a solution to the crowded conditions for inmates must occur by this month.
The ongoing issue caused the jail to lose Tennessee Corrections Institute certification last year. In addition, the county has become the defendant in six pending federal lawsuits from prisoners alleging unconstitutional or inhumane treatment.
An ad hoc joint committee composed of three of the commission's regular committees -- Courthouse/Workhouse, Law Enforcement, and Budget & Finance -- narrowly voted in July to recommend that the commission build a jail on the Hartman property on Hal Henard Road.
Of the 10 members of the ad hoc committee present that day, four voted in favor of the recommendation to build the new jail, four voted against the recommendation, one abstained, and Chairman Fred Malone broke the tie vote in favor of sending the recommendation up to the full County Commission for consideration.
During the caucus meeting prior to the commission's meeting on Monday, however, questions about the proposed site of the new jail being outside the city limits seemed to place considerable doubt in some commissioners' minds.
While a jail does not have to be in the county seat, state law does require the courthouse to be within the Greeneville city limits.
Many commissioners have said they believe it would be too great a risk and expense to transport prisoners between separate jail and courthouse locations, preferring instead that the county build a new justice center combining the two.
A new concern was that several commissioners have heard rumors that the Greeneville Regional Planning Commission would deny a request to annex the property in hopes of seeing the courthouse remain downtown.
Sheriff Steve Burns told the commission on Monday that he did not know what would become of the county's current courthouse and jail properties if a new justice center were to be built in a separate location from downtown.
He said, however, that he most likely would not utilize the current jail, which is next to the county courthouse on East Depot Street.
A general level of confusion surrounding exactly what the commissioners would be voting to agree to do also met with concern.
County Mayor Alan Broyles tried to address repeated questions about what a "yes" vote on the motion Monday evening would mean.
"This is not a motion to actually make that purchase," Broyles once explained. "This is the motion to try to negotiate and do everything we can to choose a site where you all want [the jail] to be -- on a green space in the outskirts of town."
Commissioner Robin Quillen later questioned why the commission would not be voting "yes or no" on whether to even build a jail.
"That is what you are voting on," Broyles replied.
He reemphasized this again later in the meeting, saying a "yes" vote would be to build a jail and to negotiate for pricing on the Hartman property, with no immediate timeline on when the commission would take steps to purchase the property or begin building.
County Commissioner Robert Bird noted that architect Dave Wright, who has long worked with the county on studying the question of building a new jail, told the ad hoc committee that going to a green space to build a new jail would be, in his opinion, the best option.
Bird also called on County Attorney Roger Woolsey to comment on why the commission needs to consider building a new jail.
Woolsey explained that the crowding of inmates has so far resulted in six lawsuits from four different attorneys and one pro-se lawsuit filed without an attorney. Some of these lawyers, he said, are looking for the "deep pockets."
"We have to pay the judgment," Woolsey said. "If we don't have the money to pay it, you have to levy the taxes to pay it. No ifs, ands or buts."
He said that the cost for the county to defend itself against each of these federal lawsuits will average between $50,000 and $100,000.
"Win or lose, we lose a lot of money," he said. "I think we have to do something to try to avoid these lawsuits."
For several commissioners, however, the matter still came down to cost.
"Are you advocating spending $40 million to solve this problem?" Commissioner Tim White questioned, referencing a cost estimate that the commission has heard in past preliminary proposals for a new justice center.
Woolsey replied that he is only advocating that the commission find some solution to end the lawsuits. He noted other possibilities, such as lowering the inmate population in the current facility.
Commissioner Ted Hensley said he can see the need for a new jail, but suggested that the county should "limp along" with what it has until the economy recovers. He also focused on the need for moral reform at a young age.
Commissioner John Waddle also expressed his concerns with the anticipated expense, questioning the daily cost of housing an inmate.
Burns said in reply that, fixed costs included, the cost of housing an inmate is about $36 per day.
Waddle, however, said he has not had enough information to vote yes. Additional information he said he would need included cooperation between the judges and sheriff, and work on violation-of-parole arrests.
Commissioner Anthony Sauceman asked Burns directly if the county could pay for a new facility using revenue from the housing of additional state and federal prisoners.
Burns noted that the Sheriff's Department had brought in up to $2.5 million in revenues in previous years from boarding state and federal prisoners.
But he said that $1.5 million of that is encumbered within the General Fund to help pay for operational expenses for most of the county's departments.
"If you borrow 100 percent of the money to start a business and someone said they can show you how to fund 50 percent, it might look appealing to you," he said.
"We're not talking about making a profit. We're talking about generating revenue to save taxpayers' money."
VOTES FOR, AGAINST
At the close of the discussion, the vote was 14-7 against building the new facility on a green site.
Voting against the proposal were Commissioners Wade McAmis, White, Hensley, Quillen, Lloyd "Hoot" Bowers, Phil King, M.C. Rollins, Sauceman, Margaret Greenway, Nathan Holt, Waddle, David Crum, Jan Kiker and Jimmy Sams.
Voting for the recommendation were Commissioners Malone, John Carter, Rennie Hopson, Bird, Hilton Seay, Bill Moss and Bill Dabbs.
"That puts us right back to square-one," Mayor Broyles said following the vote. He said he would coordinate with Commissioner Malone for another meeting of the ad hoc committee.
He allowed each of two companies present on Monday that had intended to provide presentations on financing if the commission had voted yes to speak briefly.
Each company representative simply offered to be available to the commission in the future as they search for ways to resolve the dilemma.
Earlier in the meeting, the proposed $25 Litigation Tax increase, estimated to bring in $225,000 in additional revenue per year to aid in paying law enforcement-related capital debt, failed in a 12-9 vote following no discussion.
The increase would have had to receive a two-thirds' majority vote to be approved.
Opposing the proposal were Commissioners McAmis, Malone, White, Hensley, Quillen, Waddle, Dabbs, Kiker and Sams.
Supporting the proposal were Commissioners Carter, Hopson, Bird, Bowers, King, Rollins, Sauceman, Seay, Holt, Greenway, Moss and Crum.
These votes were in keeping with requests made during the meeting's public hearing by Larry Parman, James Secrist and Robert Parkins, all of whom spoke against additional taxes or building a new jail.
Joe Houser also spoke to encourage the commission to set a penalty for dog-owners who allow their pet to wander onto others' property or who do not have their animal vaccinated for rabies.