Public bristles at new jail cost
Stephanie Myers
While only a few residents turned out for Thursday’s public hearing to address overcrowding, structural concerns and other issues at the Loudon County Jail and Justice Center, those who did attend expressed concerns about high costs associated with addressing the rising inmate population.

After an informal meeting to bring new commissioners up to speed on the issue before they begin their tenure on the board next month, Moseley Architects, the firm hired to conduct the jail study, again presented its needs assessment report for the current facilities and options for addressing overcrowding.

General Sessions Court Judge Rex Dale, who serves as chairman of the Loudon County Corrections Partnership committee, said the ball should soon be in county commission’s hands. The committee plans to present Moseley’s options again to the full commission in an upcoming workshop.

“I don’t want it to stagnate like it did when it snowed in February. It just kind of fell through the cracks,” Dale said after the meeting. “Our next step as the jail committee is to probably get it on for a workshop agenda so that these guys (Moseley) can come and answer any additional questions that county commission has.”

Loudon County Sheriff Tim Guider, who also sits on the jail study committee, said he was disappointed with the small crowd that came out to the Loudon County Courthouse Annex.

“The main thing is to allow the public to come and listen to the study, what the needs are. It’s a form of education, a way to educate the public, and I was kind of disappointed in the turnout,” Guider said.

Many commissioners, new and old, left the meeting before the public hearing wrapped up at just before 9 p.m. The meeting with new commissioners began with a closed door session at 5 p.m.

Loudon County officials got their first detailed look in early November at a jail feasibility study that outlined plans to either renovate the existing Justice Center property or build a new standalone facility that would accommodate detention, courtroom facilities and Loudon County Sheriff’s Office space in one location.

In one option, Moseley Architects posed a new facility to house all law enforcement and court operations that included a 278-bed facility with a capacity of 400 inmates. The plan is estimated at $47.3 million.

The second option would be to only build a jail at a cost of about $24 million and address courtroom space and law enforcement administrative offices in the future. This option would ultimately cost about $44 million. The third option is to build new jail and courtroom space and utilize the existing Justice Center for law enforcement office space.

Dale said he believed constructing a new jail and courtroom space together would be the most feasible option for the county. “Our No. 1 concern is the jail. That’s top priority,” he said, adding that he believes putting the two facilities under the same roof provides the safest option. “I think at a minimum the chancery and circuit court could still operate in the old courthouse.

“If I had my choice of recommendation I would say if we were going to do it in phases then let’s do the jail and a portion of the court system to keep them together,” Dale added.

Bob Bass, detention facilities specialist with the Tennessee Corrections Institute, warned against construction phasing for a new justice center facility.

“It’s not that I’m dead set against phasing. But just remember this: When you talk about phasing, procrastination comes with a price tag,” he said. “What are building costs going to be 20 years from now?”

The jail regularly holds about two dozen more inmates than its 91-inmate certification limit.

Tellico Village resident Richard Anklin, who unsuccessfully ran for District 7 seat on county commission in May, said he believed the three options proposed by Moseley are “too expensive” and would build more space than needed, such as space for eight courtrooms. Currently, three courtrooms are utilized throughout the week in Loudon County.

“Do we need that? The second part is, why is the law enforcement center and courts on this if the jail is the problem,” Anklin said. “Twenty-three million more (dollars). Why? ... And going from a (91) certified bed to a 278 certified bed, that’s a 150 percent increase. Why?”

Lenoir City resident Richard Truitt also expressed concern with costs and potential tax increases between building new schools and the proposed jail facility.

“It doesn’t make logical sense to spend that kind of money,” Truitt said, adding that he believed all three options were too pricey. “You’ve got to address the problem, but not like that.”

Anklin agreed.

“It could go as high as 18 cents,” Anklin said about a potential tax increase. “Do you want a 10 percent property tax increase? I don’t. ... Building the building is one thing. What does it cost to operate?”

“One problem they have is they won’t address (repeat offenders). If they don’t address that problem they’re just wasting their time,” Truitt added. “They’re just going to fill the jail up just like they filled the last one up.”

“A $47 million school building project is a whole lot easier to sell to the public than a $47 million jail,” commissioner Steve Harrelson said.

Dale said a county wheel tax could be an option to address raising funds for the needed facility. “As citizens of the county, we’re responsible for paying for services that the sheriff is providing. You know, keeping these guys off the street that need to be,” he said.

The jail study group will probably meet one more time to keep the county moving forward, he said. “We need to get it to county commission so that they can ask the questions that they need to move in whatever direction that they want to move in,” he said.