The Jail Dilemma

You may have already read the previous story, County Inching Forward On Jail. I was in the same meeting as the reporter but I came out not only believing we weren't inching forward but that we were actually going backwards.

The problem begins with inmate overcrowding in the jail. It grows to include officer safety then on to bigger, better courts needed. Next thing you know, there's a price tag of 30-40 million dollars which of course translates into a hefty property tax increase.

The latest incarnation of the plan recommended by the jail committee is for a new jail/justice center complex to locate on property in the Center 75 Industrial Park in Loudon. Minimum cost 31 million. So how do you go from needing 25-30 more jail beds to 31 million? I'll try to explain.

The debate has gone on for years now. Can the current Justice Center be added on to or is it time to move on and start over? That depends on who you talk to. If you ask those who want to start from scratch, it's impossible to add on. Cracks in the walls, bad soil, unstable ground and so on. Ask those who are not inclined to spend the big dollars that would be needed to relocate, and of course a simple addition to solve the overcrowding could be added to the current facility. All these opinions, on both sides, are just that, opinions from non professionals, like myself, to fit our positions.

About two years ago, the jail committee requested and the commission approved a forty-thousand dollar expenditure to hire an architectural firm to finally put the debate to rest. And the answer was...yes the current site could in fact be used and an addition to the existing Justice Center could be built. I and I think others felt relief that now something could be done to alleviate the over crowding problem. Now that we know we can, a simple addition at a minimal cost could proceed. Unfortunately, it wasn't going to be.

Those who had lobbied so hard for a new facility on a new site weren't ready to give up just yet. The next step was to hire a firm to come up with a plan for an addition. This is when the problems began. The Loudon County Corrections Partnership Committee, Jail Committee, is made up of Sheriff Tim Guider, Judge Rex Dale, Court Clerk Lisa Niles, Attorney General Russell Johnson, Commissioners Leo Bradshaw, Henry Cullen, Bill Satterfield and Mayor Buddy Bradshaw. Guider, Dale, Niles and Johnson are considered the stakeholders.

The committee at an early point decided to hold the costs at ten million for an addition. However, as the stakeholders worked with the architect firm, the costs quickly rose to 17-20 million, doubling the original proposal. Then of course the argument became, if we're going to spend that much, wouldn't it make more since to just add a little more with it and build all new? And that's how we got here.

What's missing form all the proposals is a small, affordable addition to the jail or even a separate, stand alone pod for non-violent offenders to serve their time freeing up bed space for the career criminals who apparently enjoy spending their time in jail. Commissioners have yet to be given a single option to consider other than 17-41 million dollars and for me that's a deal breaker.

District Attorney, Russ Johnson first mentioned it then it was echoed in a News Herald editorial that commissioners should just go ahead and raise taxes to build the new jail even if that means we would be defeated in the next election. Statements like this show just how little some understand how I and other commissioners feel about property tax increases. I don't resist raising taxes for political reasons, I resist raising taxes because folks don't want to pay higher taxes and as far as I'm concerned, it's not necessary at this time.           

I suspect some of those stakeholders have forgotten that everybody in Loudon County doesn't make 80-150 thousand dollars per year and that a property tax increase would be a financial burden on a lot of folks. Besides, if the commission followed the jail committee's recommendation, that would put the county in debt for more than a hundred million dollars. That would be the definition of irresponsibility.

Is there an argument for an all new state of the art facility? Well sure. I think we all wish we could build the biggest and best. But would any of us buy a million dollar house on a forty thousand dollar salary? I doubt it. Loudon County's financial position is tight as it can be right now. On top of that, There's the Lisa Niles, on going law suit, then there's the potential of loosing millions on the Tate/Lyle law suit. There's a lot more to be considered right now than just prisoner overcrowding.   

I certainly can't speak for anyone else but I can't imagine there is enough support on commission to move forward with the committee's current recommendation.  I would suggest it's time to disband the current Loudon County Corrections Partnership Committee, Jail Committee, and create a new, small committee to work with the architects to develope a common since, affordable plan.