Loudon panel suggests limited jail expansion

A Loudon County jail study committee has determined that a limited expansion of the current facility will be sufficient to relieve overcrowding and prevent decertification.
At less than $10 million, the proposed expansion is a fraction of the projected cost to build a new jail.
For more than two years the committee has reviewed overcrowding, officer safety and other problems at the jail, some parts of which are almost 40 years old.
"We heard about the cracks in the walls and the safety issues," said County Commissioner Henry Cullen, a member of the jail study committee.
In recent years, the population of the jail has often run at about 50 inmates above the certified limit of 95, sometimes reaching as many as 180. The jail has faced decertification by the state in recent years, according to Sheriff Tim Guider.
An architectural study, conducted by Moseley Architects at a cost of $27,000, recommended building a 280-bed facility that could be expanded to hold up to 400 beds.
Cost of the new facility, which included expanded office and court space, was estimated at $47 million, not including the cost for additional land.
"That number shocked everybody. It's a lot of money for this county," Cullen said.
After reviewing possible sites for a new jail, including the Center 75 Business Park and old manufacturing facilities, the committee decided to explore the use of land on U.S. Highway 11 adjacent to the existing justice center.
"If we hadn't looked at this land, I think the taxpayers would ask why we didn't use it," Cullen said.
Soil tests conducted on the land now used by the county's rescue squad, determined that the tract was suitable for building. The site also was conveniently located.
"It's close by the court and sheriff's department with room to expand," Cullen said.
The committee is waiting on architectural plans for a limited expansion and upgrading of the existing jail that would provide space for about 200 more inmates. A second expansion on the same site could provide more space in the future.
At a cost of $8 million to $9 million, such an expansion would address issues such as increased space for the increasing female population and the ability to classify and house different types of inmates in different areas for officer safety, he said.
The County Commission will be taking a hard look at funding options for the new construction, said County Mayor Buddy Bradshaw. Options include a property tax or a wheel tax.
At less than $10 million, the project will be much more acceptable to the taxpayers than the $47 million once proposed, he said.
"A 10-cent property tax increase would probably cover it," he said.
Property tax increases are not popular, he said. Attempts at adding a wheel tax for projects such as the school building program have been rejected by voters twice in recent years, Bradshaw said.
Bradshaw said he thinks between planning and funding, it could take 18 to 24 months before it's time to break ground on the expansion.