Idea Is To Build On The Grounds Of Workhouse
By TOM YANCEY
Three Greene County Commission committees agreed Tuesday to focus on ways to pay for and build a new 318-inmate pod on the grounds of the county workhouse, without a tax increase.
The 318-bed modular pod was initially only one part of one of three "ideas" presented in a joint meeting of the Budget & Finance Committee, the Courthouse/Workhouse Committee and the Law Enforcement Committee.
After hearing three very costly proposals, Commissioner Jerry Weems, chairman of the Courthouse/Workhouse Committee, suggested building only one pod at the workhouse.
The addition of that pod, it was explained, would allow more prisoners to be housed at the workhouse who are now housed at the overcrowded county detention center, or jail, located on East Depot Street behind the county courthouse.
County officials have been told by the Tennessee Corrections Institute that the county must have a plan in place by the end of the year to reduce serious overcrowding at the detention center, or face state decertification of that facility.
If decertification should occur, the county detention center would no longer be allowed to house federal inmates there: a potential financial blow to the county since housing federal prisoners in the detention center is a revenue-earner for the county government.
Loss of state certification at the workhouse, the other local facility where inmates are held, is not threatened.
Weems' proposal would allow more state and federal inmates to be housed at both the workhouse and the jail, an arrangement which would generate more revenue for the county.
The current county budget is based in part on the county's receiving about $1 million in net annual revenue from housing a minimum of 54 federal inmates per day.
If the county did not house the federal inmates and receive the related revenue, Weems said, the county government would have virtually the same fixed costs at the jail and workhouse as at the present -- but the county would need about a 10-cent property tax to make up the lost federal revenue.
County Mayor Alan Broyles said, "If we could fund this project with what revenue would be coming in [from housing more federal and state inmates], that would be a win for everybody," since the county government would not need to increase taxes to deal with the detention center overcrowding problem.
Would 'Buy Some Time'
County Sheriff Steve Burns said the proposal to add a 318-bed pod at the workhouse would result in 70 to 80 empty beds at the detention center, and would "buy some time" for a long-term solution.
The sheriff said the proposal would also give the county "the ability to put some money aside" to be used "to go to the next level" [potentially, a new jail facility] wherever the County Commission ultimately decides.
Commissioner John Cox asked Budget Director David Lawing to work with the architects and come up with funding method recommendations at the May meeting of the County Commission.
Sheriff Burns said the current budget anticipates housing an average of 56.9 federal and 76.7 state prisoners per day.
It would be impossible to get rid of state prisoners, because the state has no place to put them, Burns said.
Getting rid of federal prisoners would only reduce the funds spent to feed them, since no reduction in staffing would be possible and the federal government pays the cost of medical treatment and medicine for federal prisoners.
In response to questions from County Mayor Broyles, U.S. Marshal Jeff Hedden told the committees that Sheriff Burns recently negotiated a 23 percent increase in the per diem rate that the county is paid for housing federal inmates. Hedden said the rate had been $38.69 per day, but is now $48 per day.
The federal marshal also said he would do all that he can to make sure that officials in the federal correctional system are aware that beds for inmates are available at Greeneville, if the proposed new pod is built.
Hedden noted that the federal government spent $37 million to keep a federal court in Greeneville not many years ago when the new James H. Quillen U.S. District Courthouse was built in 2000-01, and he said it makes good logistical and financial sense to be able to house prisoners in Greeneville who are awaiting trial in Greeneville.
The federal marshal quipped that Greeneville and the U.S. court system "are connected at the hip," and said it's "logical to have the hub of operations here" in terms of prisoner housing.
He said bed shortages are so acute in the federal system that federal prisoners currently awaiting trial in Southwest Virginia are housed in Ohio.
Heddon also said that it appears unlikely to him that the State of Tennessee will build any more prisons in the near future, even though overcrowding is the case statewide.
Instead, the federal marshal said, the state is, in effect, "turning every county into a prison" by housing prisoners in state custody in numerous county jails.
Architects Dave Wright, of Greeneville, and Dan Bolt, of Salem, Va., presented plans for three Detention Center options -- or "ideas," as Wright called them.
Bolt was hired as a consultant to the county last December, along with jail staffing consultant David Musacchio, because of their extensive experience and expertise in prison and jail design. Musacchio's work will come later in the process.
* The first plan called for a new county detention center and justice center on an undeveloped 54-acre tract on Hal Henard Road at a cost of about $58 million.
This plan called for a new, 300-bed detention center at a projected cost of $31 million, four courtrooms at $7.5 million, a new sheriff's office at $2.3 million, about $4 million worth of site preparation work, plus $13 million for the expected inflation in the cost of materials expected over the next 36 months.
Architect Bolt said 36 months would be the expected mid-point on construction if the project got the go-ahead in May of this year.
He said he is basing inflation on 10 percent per year. In construction today, he said, "Time is the absolute enemy," because of very high inflation rates.
Building for 500 beds would raise the cost of the detention center to about $43 million.
Wright said this plan is the simplest, the most flexible, and the most expandable, but also the most costly. Plans at this site call for single-story construction, much favored because it reduces the amount of staffing needed.
No figures on staffing were presented for any of the plans, however.
Burns said the 54-acre tract was being offered for $1.5 million by owner Wayne Hartman before the new detention center idea was proposed.
The owner is willing to sell the land to the county and finance it for 10 years, the sheriff said, if the county will pay 15 to 20 percent down and pay an interest rate that is half a percentage point lower than the county would have to pay if the county government financed a new jail by issuing bonds.
* The second proposed plan called for converting the vacant Circuit Systems building on Industrial Road into a jail, at a cost of $28 million, adding courtrooms and offices at a cost of $9 million, as well as a new Sheriff's Department headquarters at $3 million, plus $12 million for inflation over the next three years.
To get 500 beds, an addition would be needed at that site.
Both Wright and Sheriff Burns spoke highly of the Circuit Systems building's structural integrity, but said it has limited parking unless additional adjoining land is purchased.
Wright said several other existing buildings were considered but rejected.
The former Magnavox Companyh/Philips Consumer Electronics/Five Rivers Electronic Innovations building was one of those considered. But, Burns said, with roughly a million square feet under roof, that building was far too large for what is needed. Another factor working against that building is its $12.5 million price tag, Burns said.
* The third plan called for building a new 210-bed addition behind the current detention center on Depot Street downtown, and constructing a $4.3 million building for courts and related offices across the street. That plan would call for a $1.6 million addition to the sheriff's office, and a $1 million upgrade of the existing detention center.
Architect Wright said he initially approached the downtown site "with a real negative attitude," but eventually decided that it had considerable potential.
However, he said the only way the downtown expansion can work is if the county also were to purchase land across Depot Street next to the Andrew Johnson Historic Site visitor center, and build new court and administrative space there.
The second phase of the downtown project called for adding one or more 318-bed pods to the existing workhouse on West Summer Street. Wright said the kitchen and laundry facilities at the workhouse are large enough to handle several hundred more prisoners at little added cost.
Sheriff Burns said building the new pod(s) at the workhouse site would require purchasing four small homes on Sunset Street, and possibly additional land in the vicinity to allow for future expansion.
Wright said Sheriff Burns is well aware of the "Rediscover Greeneville" project of the Morgan Square Development Group, which is led by local businessman and philanthropist Scott Niswonger.
Niswonger announced in September 2007 that, in connection with the planned downtown revitalization project, he anticipated investing $27 million to carry out a number of renovation and construction projects affecting properties he owns in the downtown area.
Rediscover Greeneville also anticipates some public investment on related projects such as increasing downtown parking facilities.
Wright said the proposal for expansion of the downtown detention center is designed to "mesh" with the "Rediscover Greeneville" plans.
Burns said the chief advantage of the downtown detention center's site is that it starts with a jail that is certified for 160 beds. Though the current detention center, or jail, is landlocked, multi-level, and needs some work, "it's ours," and it's paid for, the sheriff pointed out.
Burns said that if both the downtown and the workhouse phases of this plan were to be implemented, the downtown facility would be limited to pre-trial prisoners, to take advantage of the facility's close proximity to the courts.
He said between 80 and 100 state and county pre-trial prisoners typically are housed at the detention center presently.
Burns said the new jail would be a "stand-alone" facility, with its own water, heating and cooling.
This plan would call for building a 64-bed pod on top of the existing jail, and bringing the existing building, which dates from the mid-1980s, into line with current building codes.
Burns said maximum utilization of both the downtown detention center and the workhouse off Summer Street could make it possible to house as many as 1,500 inmates, although a number of smaller configurations are possible.