Puts Decision In
The Hands Of
BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
A 5-4 vote by an ad hoc committee of the Greene County Commission will send to the full commission a recommendation to build a new Greene County Detention Center at a site off Hal Henard Road.
The ad hoc committee did not specify when the commission will vote on what to do about crowded conditions at the jail. That action is expected in either August or September.
The combined committee making the recommendation had been formed from all members of the county's Budget & Finance, Courthouse/Workhouse, and Law Enforcement committees: a total of approximately 15 persons, almost all of them county commissioners.
Of the total membership of the combined committee, 10 members were present on Thursday for the closely-divided vote on the new jail recommendation.
Commissioner Robert Bird made the motion to recommend proceeding with building a new facility on what is known as the Hartman property, located on Hal Henard Road.
Commissioner Bird's motion called for the new jail to be built "under a similar position as has been proposed to us" by several organizations that have said they are willing to provide lease-to-own opportunities.
Bird said that the commission does not need to continue bouncing between sites. "It's indecision," he said, indicating he feels the commission should settle on the Hartman property.
"That would leave it up to the powers that be, if it's approved, to negotiate those details," he concluded.
Commissioner Rennie Hopson, who has retired from the Greene County Sheriff's Department and is now a security officer at the Greene County Courthouse, seconded the motion.
Commissioners Hilton Seay, M.C. Rollins, Bird and Hopson voted in favor of the recommendation.
Commissioners Phil King, Tim White, Wade McAmis and Robin Quillen voted against the motion.
Commissioner Jimmy Sams appeared undecided about the issue, and chose not to vote either for or against the motion.
As chairman of the combined committee, Commissioner Fred Malone broke the 4-4 tie in favor of the recommendation, saying, "I'm going to vote for it to get it on the floor. Hopefully the only way we can come towards an even agreement is hopefully without a tax increase."
Commissioners John Carter and Lloyd "Hoot" Bowers were absent from the meeting.
Mayor Alan Broyles, the chairman of the Budget & Finance Committee, had left the meeting by the time Bird made the motion, and Sheriff Steve Burns, a member of the Law Enforcement Committee, did not attend the session.
During just over an hour's discussion prior to the vote, the committee members reviewed the various options that have previously been presented, including renovations and extensions to the current facility and building on a new site.
Malone praised the committee for their calm discussion Thursday, rather than the heated debates of recent meetings.
"I really appreciate everyone's patience and consideration of everyone else," Malone said. "This is something I feel like we've got to do, and we need to hash it out."
BUILD OR RENOVATE?
Considerable discussion surrounded the less expensive construction costs of renovating or expanding the current Greene County Detention Center downtown.
However, Bird urged the committee to move past these considerations, noting the multi-levels of the current jail, which he said requires extensive staffing and is highly discouraged by jail experts.
Any extension or renovation would likely only worsen this problem and cost the county, Bird said.
"Being on the [Budget & Finance Committee], we know where the money's spent," he said.
"Buying the land is a one-time purchase. [Doubling personnel] is a yearly purchase that will go on and on, and, 10 years from now, there will be a committee meeting, wondering what we're going to do about this.
"In my opinion, it would probably cost more to do it (expand) than it would from scratch," he concluded.
Architect Dave Wright noted that when the commission considered this issue five years ago, the same conclusion was reached.
"The bricks-and-mortar parts are the 'cheap' parts," he said. "It's the staffing and personnel where the money tends to multiply."
Wright recalled that a recent County Technical Assistance Service (CTAS) study of the Greene County jail projected that the county would need a 400-bed facility by 2017, in addition to the county workhouse, which is located off Summer Street and is used to house low-security prisoners.
Hopson also noted the crowded conditions of the Greene County Courthouse, and wondered whether the fire marshal would one day walk in and "send everyone out."
The proposals the County Commission has heard this year from teams of financiers, architects and contractors have included a "justice center" approach, with the jail, offices and courthouse all in one building.
These recent proposals have projected, as a comparison point and starting place, a $40 million cost for the purchase of the 50-acre Hartman property and construction of an approximately 450-bed facility, with justice center.
These proposals would also include expansion capabilities of the new facility.
Under the proposals the county has heard, Greene County would not own the property at first, but would make lease payments toward that goal over the course of 20 or more years at a cost of approximately $3 million per year.
The county would not make the first lease payment until the construction is complete and revenues are being generated from the housing of state and federal prisoners.
While the teams that have made the presentations believe the county could possibly make the lease payments off these prisoner-boarding revenues, the county has in recent years leaned on that revenue stream to balance the County General Fund, out of which most county departments operate.
The county faces a significant deficit this year in the General Fund, largely because of the anticipated major reduction of these revenues after the Tennessee Corrections Institute (TCI) recertified the jail on a conditional, month-by-month status.
To keep this certification, the county must show monthly progress to correcting the overcrowding at the jail and by keeping the inmate population lower. This means less housing of state and federal prisoners for revenue.
Without the certification, however, the county's liability is greatly increased. The jail was decertified in 2012, and the county now faces six lawsuits surrounding that period.
While committee members could all agree that the county must now do something in response to the TCI's demands that the county deal with the jail-overcrowding problem, how to pay for that solution remains a stumbling block for some commissioners.
"We don't need a 700-bed jail," White said. "We need to get our numbers down. State and [federal inmates] ain't going to pay for this jail. They may pay for some of it.
"We're trying to go whole-hog here, [and] we can't afford to buy his tail."
Quillen agreed, and expressed concern that the county might not be able to afford the first payment.
"If we can't pay for it, we ain't going to default," White predicted. "We're going to pass it along to the taxpayers."
He later pointed to budgeting those revenues into the General Fund rather than putting them toward the jail as the source of the county's current troubles.
"I was of the same opinion," Quillen said. "Who's to say, if we go into this for these millions of dollars, that it's not going to be the same thing and we're not going to go to the taxpayers?
"If we had the money today, we'd start a jail," she later added. "We need one. But we don't [have the money.]"
Bird concluded that the commission faces only three choices to pay for the jail:
* a property tax increase;
* waiting for a federal judge to force a property tax increase to solve the problem in response to the overcrowding; or,
* taking the risk on a lease-to-own proposal based on the advice the commission has received.