At Times; No
For The Present
BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
Frustration over the high costs associated with building a new detention center, or even expanding an existing facility, had Greene County Commissioners questioning Wednesday whether they should be spending their time trying to find a solution to the jail overcrowding problem.
The commission has been holding joint committee meetings involving members of the Courthouse/Workhouse Committee, the Law Enforcement Committee, and the Budget & Finance Committee.
The Greene County Detention Center was decertified in September by the Tennessee Corrections Institute (TCI), largely due to overcrowding.
On Wednesday, County Budget Director Mary Shelton and Mayor Alan Broyles shared with the three committees the latest purchase prices offered to the county.
Broyles said that he requested a cost for the land off Hal Henard Road in which the committees had expressed interest.
The property owner, Wayne Hartman, said the county could purchase the 55-acre lot for $1 million and that financing would be available with a down payment, according to Broyles.
Broyles said he also spoke again with the owner of the former Magnavox Plant #3 building, Charles White.
The mayor said White is not interested in selling the entire building, and is only interested in leasing about a 540,000-square-foot portion, with the option for the county to buy the full site at a later date.
The lease would be a capital lease, at the end of which the county would own the property, Broyles said.
He said that the lease remains at the $16.65 million amount previously offered. He distributed a diagram of the building.
The diagram showed how the county would own about half the building, up to a firewall, and the portion of the parking lot nearest the building.
The portion of the lot near Kiser Boulevard would remain in White's ownership.
PER BED COST
Architect Dave Wright, who worked for the county in 2007 in considering possible expansions or the building of a new facility, gave project estimates based on a "per bed" breakdown.
In other words, he divided the construction cost by the number of inmates that could be housed in each facility, to get a per-inmate cost.
For example, if the county were to equip the Magnavox building as a detention center only, he said, it would cost about $52,000 per bed -- or about $58,000 per bed if the building was equipped as a detention center, plus courtrooms and clerical offices.
A new building designed as only a detention center would cost $85,000 per bed. If a new building was designed as a detention center plus courtrooms and clerical offices, he said, the cost per bed would range from $100,000 to $115,000.
However, these costs did not include the lease price of the Magnavox building, or the purchase price of the land, he explained.
County Commisioner Robert Bird requested that Shelton provide a chart with these numbers, including the property purchase costs, for the committee to have a comparison.
Shelton agreed to do so, but noted that the numbers would vary based on the number of beds included in the facilities.
Wright said he had varied the number of beds somewhat in his cost estimates, based on what seemed reasonable for the project.
Bird asked that Shelton show numbers comparing, for example, the cost of 500 beds, 600 beds, and 700 beds.
However, the committee later chose to eliminate the Magnavox option as it has currently been offered, citing the "sandwiched" nature of purchasing only a portion of the building.
Bird abstained from the vote.
At the meeting Wednesday, Shelton also updated the committees on the financing options available to the county.
Shelton reported that United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development has indicated willingness to loan the county "as much as we can afford" for a period of 38 to 39 years.
Through December, the interest rate on a USDA Rural Development loan would be 3.5 percent. Changes in this rate generally fluctuate between .02 and .25 of a percent, Shelton said.
"They say they have a pot of money to lend," she told the three committees, explaining that the loan would also allow the county to defer payments on the principal for two or three years.
"We would be paying interest-only through that time," Shelton added.
The question this left for the committee, however, was simply, "How much can we afford to pay?"
Commissioner Lloyd "Hoot" Bowers first raised this question.
Commissioner Jan Kiker was quick to insist, "We can't afford to pay what we've got."
Shelton agreed that any loan would have to be paid from increased revenue.
Sheriff Steve Burns and Broyles have proposed that it may be possible for the county to consider building a facility that not only has room for the seemingly natural increase of inmates over time, but is also large enough to house additional state and federal inmates immediately so that this additional revenue can be used to provide revenue for the loan payments.
The only other funding option seemingly available is for the County Commission to raise property taxes.
"Is that what we're talking about -- we've got to wait until next year to look at raising taxes to create funding?" Bowers asked. "Well, what are we doing here? I'm not going to do that."
The majority of the other commissioners present verbally agreed that they would not support raising taxes in 2013.
"We can borrow the money to build it. But, in our current economy, with our revenues, without something going on, if we were just basing it on [current] property taxes, we could not pay the debt service," Shelton explained.
"If we can delay some of those payments until we are fully open with a new jail or with an addition to the jail, and generating more prisoners, we could help to pay that down," Shelton continued.
"But if we do a bond, it's going to be based on the faith of the county government to increase property taxes if the need is there.
"The investors that are buying the bond are looking at the guarantee that the county will pay it, no matter what -- whatever means that they have to do to do that."
For Bowers, it was a situation of the commissioners' "spinning our wheels" and for Commissioner Robin Quillen it was "chasing our tails."
But many seemed to agree that the committees were making little to no progress on the situation without a clear decision on the source of revenue.
However, as commissioners began to ask if they should just give up and stop searching for a solution to the current overcrowding, Shelton broke back into the conversation with a reminder.
"[Not taking action] does also open us up -- because we're not doing anything -- to more lawsuits. We've got three [lawsuits] right now that are considerable," she said.
Other members noted that a federal judge could mandate that the county build the jail, an option that most members agreed would not be the best-case scenario since the judge could mandate a property tax increase or extensive specifications for the jail.
Kiker, who is not a member of either of the three committees, objected to considering any construction based on its being financed by inmate-based revenue, saying that the county planned the same method of paying for the Sheriff's Department workhouse.
Shelton had reported that the amount still owed on the principal for that project is about $1.6 million.
Shelton later explained that this loan has twice been extended through refinancing, adding that the nature of the bond also does not allow for it to be paid off in full at any given time.
"The workhouse isn't even paid for," Kiker noted in the discussion.
"Oh, we've been through that time and time again," Burns replied.
"Well, it's not!" Kiker said.
"But it's not the workhouse's fault. It's not its fault, Jan," the sheriff emphasized.
She questioned how Burns could say he could pay for another building or extension with inmate revenue.
"I'm not saying you can, but you bring [the workhouse debt] up every time. You know better.
"You all keep rapping the debt. The project was less than $2.5 million; we generated that much last year," Burns said.
"So it could have been paid for," the sheriff added. "You all didn't pay for it -- not the fact that it couldn't have been. It could have been!"
"Well, I disagree with that," Kiker said.
'LIVE IN OUR SHOES'
Sheriff Burns had to leave for another meeting at this point, but Commissioner M.C. Rollins stopped him as he was walking out the door to ask if the county could pay for the construction with the revenue from the inmates.
"I'm not going to make that decision. That's up to somebody else," Burns replied.
After Burns left the room, Neil Matthews, the administrator at the detention center, paused to make a rare address to the committees.
"I'm going to say one thing. I wish to ... you all would come over and live in our shoes. That's all I've got to say," Matthews said of conditions at the jail, before walking out and slamming the door behind him.
THE SHERIFF'S PROBLEM?
As the debate over revenue continued, commissioners referred to the situation as the sheriff's problem, agreeing that they would not want to be in his shoes.
(TCI considers the County Commission to be the government entity responsible for funding and providing the necessary jail facilities and the sheriff only as the operator of what the County Commission provides, according to TCI spokesman William Robert Kane.)
Joint Committee Chairman Fred Malone said that the commission should not have budgeted the sheriff's revenues into the General Fund (the fund out of which the majority of the county's departments operate), rather than toward his costs and the jail facilities themselves.
Shelton later confirmed that all the revenues generated by the jail are budgeted into the General Fund.
"But that was his choosing," Kiker said.
The committee closed by forming a subcommittee, including Bowers, Rollins, Hilton Seay and Jimmy Sams, that will meet at 9 a.m. Monday at the Courthouse Annex to travel in search of potential sites for a new detention center.
The joint committees will meet again at 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 8.