Cocke Now Facing Lawsuit
By Prisoner In District Court
Cocke Mayor Fears
Court Will Require
New, Costlier Jail
Than County's Plan
By TOM YANCEY
The Cocke County Legislative Body, or CLB, did not include funds for a proposed new county jail in the county's 2008-2009 budget. Soon after that decision, the Cocke County Jail was decertified by the Tennessee Corrections Institute (TCI).
Now the county faces a U.S. District Court lawsuit filed by a prisoner who alleges jail overcrowding, and Cocke County Mayor Iliff McMahan Jr. believes that, unless the county regains momentum on its own project, the county will eventually have to build a new, court-ordered jail that will be even more expensive than the one that had been proposed.
In a telephone interview with The Greeneville Sun on Wednesday, McMahan said the Cocke County Legislative Body (which corresponds to the Greene County Commission in this county) did not put funds for a new jail in the current county budget, although a $10 million plan was presented in the budget-making process.
Funding a new jail would most likely have put a process in motion that would have led to recertification of the existing Cocke County Jail by the TCI, pending completion of the new jail. But that did not happen.
Cocke County now faces an inmate lawsuit in federal court that alleges inmate overcrowding, Mayor McMahan said.
If the inmate lawsuit goes forward, he said, the most likely outcome would be a court order calling for the county to build a jail at the court's direction.
Both the Greene County Detention Center and the Greene County Workhouse facility were built in response to federal court orders following prisoner lawsuits.
McMahan said he has talked to other county mayors where court-ordered construction has happened.
He said he has been told that a jail built under a court order "costs at least 50 percent more" than a similar structure built without court direction, "and in most cases, twice as much, or more."
Cocke County's Story
Cocke County has two jails, McMahan said: one upstairs in the county's 78-year-old courthouse, and a separate jail built in the early 1990s.
He said the county has been told that the jail space on the third floor of the courthouse "will never be certified," and should be converted to storage.
The newer, main jail, with 88 beds, was not certified until after McMahan took office in 2002.
The Cocke County mayor said that, soon after he took office, the county was notified that all of its liability insurance was in jeopardy because the newer jail was not certified.
At that time, the main obstacles to certification were administrative and staffing issues, he said. The county was able to deal with those problems and "put together a timeline" for dealing with overcrowding.
As a result, Cocke County was granted TCI certification for four years, "with the caveat" that continued progress on the overcrowding issue had to be made in order for state certification to continue.
Early in 2006, the mayor said he formed a jail/justice center task force involving all of the county departments that had involvement with the jail. The task force identified suitable property for a new jail and presented recommendations to the County Legislative Body (CLB) in early 2007.
McMahan said that, at the time, he asked the CLB to appropriate $50,000 for a feasibility study on a new jail, but the request was not approved by the CLB.
Decertification Was Prompt
When the feasibility study was not funded, McMahan said he was told by Melody Gregory, a jail inspector with the Tennessee Corrections Institute, that the CLB's non-action had stopped the forward momentum on the project, and would lead to decertification.
Within a month, the Cocke County Jail was decertified, he said.
He added that, although administrative and staffing issues were cited by the TCI, along with overcrowding, the main reason for the decertification was lack of a plan to correct the overcrowding problem.
Gregory was invited back to speak to the CLB, McMahan said, and at that meeting, a scaled-back plan for a $30,000 feasibility study was approved.
The contract to carry out the study was awarded to Barge Waggoner Sumner & Cannon, a regional engineering firm, which began preliminary work.
Plan Presented To CLB
Two building sites were identified, and preliminary plans were created and presented to the CLB early this year, with a projected cost of $16 million to $17 million, he said.
The plan that was presented included a 100-to-125-bed medium/maximum security jail, new sheriff's offices, and four courtrooms and related offices (although one of the courtrooms was to be left unfinished inside).
The CLB asked to know what the cost of building only the jail would be, and a plan to do that -- estimated at $10 million to $12 million -- was prepared. The plan called for refurbishing the existing jail as a minimum-security facility.
But when the least costly, $10 million option for the new facility was presented last spring during the budget-making process, Mayor McMahan said, the budget that the CLB passed did not fund a new jail, did not include a tax increase, and did not give raises to county employees.
At this point, McMahan said, he believes that the jail project can still be built for about what was projected in the spring, if federal court involvement can be avoided.
"It's no secret that the cost will be more if the federal courts come in," he said.
He said he is not sure that commissioners and the public realize that a federal court order not only will result in a more costly jail but also will also hurt the county's credit and bond rating, damage the county's ability to borrow money (by making borrowing more costly), and will "hurt the county's credibility with the business community, since it shows you can't manage your own affairs."
Overall, "It's bad business," McMahan said.
Waiting For Court Order?
Cocke County's mayor said he has been told, off the record, that several members of the CLB believe that court-ordered jail construction will happen eventually and, as a result, commissioners will not be blamed for the tax increase the new jail will require.
He said commissioners who believe that must not realize that their lack of action will ultimately hurt Cocke County's taxpayers.
"I've been told in the finance committee meeting that (a jail funding proposal) isn't going to pass," he said.
McMahan said he does not plan to present the jail proposal to the CLB again, although he will continue to remind members of the finance committee of their obligation.
New Revenue Source
He said he is encouraged somewhat because Cocke County has passed a resolution increasing the fees attached to court documents.
Until the change, the fee was $10 per document, which last year generated about $50,000. The fee is now set at the maximum level, $50 per document.
McMahan said the new fee is expected to generate about $250,000 per year, which he said is "roughly half of the yearly note on a $10 million bond."
Having that additional revenue, he said, may make it more likely that a jail funding resolution can pass.
Blount Continuing To House
State And Federal Inmates
New Pod Under Study;
Sheriff Agrees With Burns
On Housing Prisoners
To Offset Building Costs
By TOM YANCEY
Blount County Sheriff James Berrong said this week he thinks Greene County Sheriff Steve Burns is correct in believing most of the cost of a new detention center in Greene County can be covered by increased revenue from housing more federal inmates.
The Tennessee Corrections Institute (TCI) has given Greene County until Dec. 3 to adopt a plan for dealing with inmate overcrowding, or face decertification of its detention center by the state.
After two lengthy workshops and a series of committee meetings, the Greene County Commission has not approved a plan, though one could still emerge at Monday's commission meeting.
Two weeks ago, the Blount County Justice Center was decertified by the Tennessee Corrections Institute "for overcrowding," Sheriff Berrong said in a telephone interview.
The Justice Center there, a detention center or jail completed in 1999, has a capacity of 350 beds, "but we're averaging about 430 right now."
Blount County is directly south of Knox County, extending to North Carolina.
A lot of the overcrowding can be "attributed to federal inmates, the 130 federal inmates that we keep" on a regular basis for the U.S. Marshal Service, he said.
On Wednesday, Blount County had 170 federal inmates in custody awaiting action in U.S. District Court in Knoxville, about 15 miles away.
Berrong said the Blount County Justice Center, as that jail is called, houses that many federal inmates "because it's a good economical benefit to the county. Unfortunately, some of the commissioners and/or citizens don't see it that way."
When told that Sheriff Burns thinks Greene County can use increased numbers of federal inmates to cover all or most of the cost of constructing a new detention/justice center, Sheriff Berrong said, "I think he's correct."
Berrong said he was aware that Greene County already houses federal inmates awaiting some legal action in U.S. District Court.
Blount County's Story
The Blount County Justice Center was built about a mile from downtown Blountville, across from Blount Memorial Hospital.
Berrong said the decision to move was made because "we were landlocked" at the old downtown location, next to the courthouse.
A parking garage would have been required, and the area still would have been landlocked, so the Blount County Commission "chose to move" the detention/justice center to vacant land that was available close to town.
After the new jail was opened, he said, "We developed a good relationship with the Marshal's Service" -- a relationship that Sheriff Berrong said has benefited his department's budget and Blount County's budget.
Fixed Costs Are A Key
He said that any jail has fixed costs, including not only construction but also staffing, utilities, food, uniforms, maintenance and other items.
"If we took 200 inmates out today, the revenue from them would be gone," Sheriff Berrong said, but most of the fixed costs would remain.
"Expenses would be the same" with fewer prisoners, he said, except that fewer meals and uniforms would be needed. Berrong said it costs Blount County about 80 cents per meal to feed prisoners.
"Every county has to have a jail," he said. "Unfortunately, in society, there is a need for a correctional facility -- always has been and always will be."
Since that is the case, Berrong said it makes sense to offset some of the costs of a detention center with the extra revenue source that is available from housing federal prisoners.
"It's a good business approach to offset fixed expenditures," he said.
Most people would rather spend tax money on education than on a detention center, he continued, but the need for jail space will always be there.
Asked if proximity to a federal courthouse in Knoxville provides the opportunity for his county, in effect, to "take lemons and make lemonade," Sheriff Berrong replied, "Exactly."
He said the decertification of the Blount County detention center has not slowed the flow of either state or federal prisoners to the county's jail so far, although he is in almost daily contact with the U.S. Marshal's service now to maintain that relationship.
Berrong noted that Blount County Mayor Jerry Cunningham has appointed a study committee to investigate the feasibility of adding a new "pod" to the current detention center to relieve overcrowding.
The sheriff said he has provided the committee with figures that he believes show that it would be to the county's financial advantage to use revenue from federal prisoners to help with the cost.
"I've stayed neutral on it," he said, other than providing figures on detention center revenue and expenditures.
"Our situation in Blount County is, we're already housing federal inmates," and projecting revenue from them, he said.
If Blount County commissioners "vote not to build (the new detention center pod)," and instead vote to reduce the number of federal inmates, "it will cost them money, it will cost them a revenue source," that will have to be replaced.
On the other hand, "If they vote to build it, some 'up-front' money will be required," but construction costs will be offset once the new pod is operational and can again houses federal imates.
Berrong said that when the TCI decertifies or certifies a jail, the action officially remains in effect for a year. Technically, however, a jail could be inspected again any time after Dec. 31. "It could be in January, or December" of 2009, he said.
He said decertification has not so far slowed the flow of state prisoners to the county jail "at all," because state correctional officials "don't have any place to put them." The state also pays the county a daily fee to house prisoners.
The sheriff said federal inmates also continue to come and go, as they did before Blount County's detention center was decertified, even though the county now "communicates almost daily" with the U.S. Marshal for the Eastern District of Tennessee, Jeff Hedden, or his deputy marshals.
"Jeff Hedden is a guy from your county, and he's a great guy. We've had a great relationship with Marshal Hedden" that has benefited both the county and the federal government. Sheriff Berrong said that he hopes to continue that relationship.
The sheriff passed along "a caveat" that he said he had communicated earlier Wednesday to Blount County's mayor and the study committee.
Right now, he said, Blount County houses about 50 inmates in state custody, and is paid $35 per inmate per day for doing so.
He said other counties' experiences have shown him that, if Blount County chooses to reduce the number of federal inmates it houses, state officials will stop picking up prisoners that qualify for transfer to state prisons, and the number of state inmates housed in Blount County will increase.
Counties have no leverage over the state officials in such situations.
Sheriff Burns has told the Greene County Commission that state officials do not count state prisoners sentenced to serve their sentences in state prisons as contributing to "overcrowding."
But the prisoners are there, eating, wearing uniforms, taking up space formerly occupied by federal inmates, doing so at a lower reimbursement rate than would be true if they were federal prisoners.
If that happens in Blount County, "We'll have the same expenses, with a lot less revenue," he said, adding, "I know how that game is played with the state."