BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
It's time for the Greene County government to "get on the same sheet of music" about its jail overcrowding problem, according to advice offered to the County Commission's Workhouse/Courthouse, Budget & Finance, and Law Enforcement Committees on Tuesday.
Jim Hart, a jail management consultant with the University of Tennessee County Technical Assistance Service (CTAS), took the joint committee's questions concerning his knowledge of the county detention centers across the state.
The key question commissioners asked Hart on Tuesday was whether the county could pay for upgrades, additions, building a new jail or any of the other options before them with the revenue received from the housing of additional state and federal inmates.
The county government currently budgets such funds into the County General Fund to balance expenses, rather than setting such funds into a reserve account for future growth and maintenance.
Hart was unable to provide specific answers to such questions since he said he had only just begun to study Greene County's situation on Tuesday.
However, he agreed with a unanimous request from the committee for him to work with Sheriff Steve Burns to review numbers and proposals formed in 2007, when the Greene County Detention Center was last threatened with decertification due to overcrowding and the County Commission spent a year discussing various options.
The jail was decertified several weeks ago by the Tennessee Corrections Institute (TCI), largely because of overcrowding.
In the end, the commission decided in 2007 not to take any action involving new construction, and Sheriff Burns was able to reduce the number of federal inmates housed in the jail by half, a step which reduced the county's revenue but prevented decertification.
Now, however, Burns has made it clear to the commissioners that there is no way he can reduce the population by enough to retain certification.
According to the report by the Tennessee Corrections Institute, the daily average inmate count at the Greene County Detention Center between Jan. 12 and April 20 was 264 -- 67 percent above what is considered the jail's proper capacity.
In actuality, the jail's capacity is 158 inmates, but TCI recommends the jail maintain only about 90 percent of that number in order to properly allow for segregation of prisoners where that is appropriate (such as separating violent and nonviolent prisoners).
Without certification, and with overcrowding such that TCI noted in its report that the jail has little ability to segregate prisoners, the county's vulnerability in the event of lawsuits filed by inmates is greatly increased, according to the TCI.
A $3 million federal lawsuit has been filed within the last several weeks, citing overcrowding as a contributing factor to an inmate-beating incident that occurred in 2011, when the jail was still certified.
Faced with these realities, Commissioner Robin Quillen and others attending the meeting Tuesday stated, "It's mandatory we do something. Something's got to be done."
During the meeting, only Commissioner Jan Kiker disagreed with this statement, saying that it is not mandatory and questioning the wisdom of relying on funding from inmates to make payments on any improvements or additions the county may make.
Commissioners were torn between what they need to know first: how the county would fund a project, or which project best fits the county's needs and how much it would cost.
OPTIONS TO CONSIDER
Tuesday's project discussion ranged among a wide variety of possibilities available to the county, including:
* leasing to buy a portion or all of the former Magnavox Plant #3 building, to convert it to a County Justice Center;
* purchasing approximately 60 acres of land within the city limits to build a new Justice Center facility, the size of which could vary widely; and,
* upgrading the downtown center and purchasing land on Sunset Boulevard, near the current Sheriff's Department workhouse, in order to add additions there.
The third option seemed to have some favor among commissioners during Tuesday's discussions.
Burns noted that there would be both advantages and disadvantages to such action. He said that future expansion might not be possible at that site, but also noted that the location already has [at the workhouse] the necessary kitchen and laundry facilities a detention center would need.
Whatever the option selected, Sheriff Burns said the county needs to be able to house about 800 inmates.
That capacity, he explained, would make it possible to house more prisoners than are currently at the Detention Center, in order to increase revenue to the county to pay for the jail project, as well as to provide room to grow as inmate populations naturally increase with time.
NEED FOR REVENUE
While the U.S. Marshals Service will not guarantee the number of federal inmates it will house in a jail, most commissioners and officials agreed on Tuesday that the number of inmates is likely only to continue to increase with time.
With the jail's current revenue already committed, if paying for any construction is not possible through increased revenue from the housing of more prisoners, a property tax increase would be the only other option, Commissioner Hilton Seay said.
Commissioners estimated that it would take about an 8-cent increase per $1 million of the project.
Early cost estimates for a new jail facility have ranged between $35 million and $40 million, unless the county leased a portion of the Magnavox building.
The full cost of choosing the Magnavox building option is currently estimated near $74 million over 20 years.
County Budget Director Mary Shelton noted that the county's total current debt, without including Education Debt Service, is $18,530,000.
The debt service payment this year, including the principal and interest obligations, is about $1.7 million, she said.
"But next year we can't make the payment on what we have now," Commissioner John Carter noted, referring to the county's dwindling debt service fund balance.
'TIME TO FOCUS'
"There's a lot of things that have been thrown out here in a short amount of time," Hart noted.
He encouraged the committees to organize and gain focus for their actions, suggesting that taking the matter step by step with public forums along the way may help.
Several commissioners reacted negatively to this suggestion, however, saying that the public will only oppose spending money.
"We know what they have to say," County Attorney Roger Woolsey said.
"If it involves spending any money, you can nip it in the bud," Quillen agreed.
Hart, however, continued to emphasize the need for organization in the process and open communication with the public.
He suggested regular forums with PowerPoint Presentations and pictures to explain what the county is considering at the time of that forum, as well as providing a time for questions and feedback.
"You all have gone all around in this meeting, but it's important you all are on the same sheet of music," Hart said.
"We're sort of going all over the place right now. You've got to bring focus to what you're doing."
'TIME TO DECIDE'
County Commissioner John Carter agreed that it was time for the committees to begin to make decisions.
He then sponsored a motion to have Mayor Alan Broyles request a final, "bottom dollar" price for both a portion and the whole of the former Magnavox building.
This motion passed, with Commissioner Quillen and Commissioner Jimmy Sams voting against it.
Both said that they do not believe the Maganvox building is a viable option for the county and are not interested in further discussion about it.
Carter agreed that he is unlikely to vote for such a project, but noted the committees' need to move forward by eliminating or selecting some projects at the next meeting.
In addition, he made a motion to have Mayor Broyles get a cost update on approximately 60 acres of land on Hal Henard Road that the county considered in 2007, if the land is still available.
The motion passed unanimously.
Hart also recommended that the county consider alternative sentencing and special programming for their jail that may not be available in other counties, explaining that this may help draw state and/or federal funds to the project.
The committees heard from Joel Davenport, chief of operations for House Arrest Systems of TN, Inc., who presented an electronic/Global Positioning System (GPS) ankle bracelet system.
This does not require a contract with the county or any commitment from the county, Davenport said.
He explained that inmates who can afford the monitoring system make a contract directly with HAS.
The bracelets form a type of "electronic fence" around the inmate's home and send an alert the moment the inmate passes that barrier, he said.
The bracelets can also allow for the inmate to report ahead a certain route, such as to their doctor's office, and allow the inmate only along that route during a specified period. Any deviation from the route sends an immediate alarm, he added.
The bracelets are also available for detecting alcohol use and to determine if an individual approaches known restricted locations, Davenport said.
Most committee members expressed interest in the possibilities presented by the bracelets.
Burns cautioned that such bracelets are only an option for those who can afford it and could potentially increase his costs for patrols if officers frequently need to pick up inmates breaking their electronic barriers.
He noted that half of the warrants the Sheriff's Department serves are for violation of probation.
The commissioners expressed some hope that this system may be different, however, due to its close monitoring and the inmates' knowledge that breaking the barrier would send an immediate notice.
While the decision to use such a monitoring system is completely in the hands of the local judges in their sentencing, the committee voted to discuss the matter with Criminal Court Judge John F. Dugger Jr.
The committee members scheduled their next meeting for 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 24.