Solving the jail dilemma

Published 7:42 pm Saturday, February 25, 2012

Commissioners’ retreat focuses on planning and funding

When a study committee tasked with planning a new jail for Beaufort County begins its work in the coming weeks, the location of the new detention center is just one of the issues it will be asked to address.

The eight-member Jail Study Committee is expected to begin its work in early March, and take on determining the logistics of, and options for, a new jail’s construction.

One of Beaufort County Detention Center’s officers makes rounds through the felon cellblocks of the jail. The Lexan glass prevents assaults on the officers in such close quarters. (WDN Photo/Vail Stewart Rumley)

In the past three decades, the needs of the Beaufort County Detention Center have outgrown the space available, leading to a facility rife with potential danger to detention officers, inmates, attorneys and anyone else who happens to be on premises, according to those familiar with the issue.

As a result of this growing concern, the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners invited several experts to a recent daylong retreat, to weigh in on the courses available in planning, building and paying for a new jail.

“Extra efforts” in planning the new jail will help the county avoid additional costs in the future, according to Todd Davis, senior associate with Moseley Architects, a North Carolina and Virginia firm specializing in detention center planning and design.

“If you design the facility for the people who work there — for their safety and security — the inmate side will take care of itself,” Davis said.

One of the most significant changes in jail construction since the Beaufort County Detention Center was built in 1972, is technology, he added. Options like digital cameras, televised medicine for inmates, and keyless entries, have not only led to efficiencies in staffing but to a decrease in injuries for both staff and inmates.

Another factor to consider would be the potential for increased property tax levied against county taxpayers to not only provide funds to build the jail, but the funds to operate it, the panel was told.

“The cost of building the jail is only about 20 percent of the cost of running it,” Davis told the commissioners.

For example, he said, a multi-story jail may cost less to build that a one-story jail, but the costs of operating the multi-story building would be considerably higher than a one-story building because of increased staffing needs.

During the recent economic downturn, construction costs have fallen but because of the rising cost of fuel and some materials, those costs are expected to rise in the coming months, according to William W. Cram, executive vice president of M.B. Kahn Construction Co., Inc.

Superior Court Judge Wayland Sermons Jr. believes this financial aspect is reason enough to move forward at an accelerated pace.

“Local government borrowing is as cheap as it’s ever been,” Sermons said. “A delay could be more costly in the long run. And that would be fiscally irresponsible.”

Cram told the commissioners they could consider paying for the new jail with U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development Funds, general obligation bonds, revenue bonds, state and federal grants and special opportunity grants such as those for solar projects.

In considering the county’s current finances, the commissioners were also told the county does have the capacity to take on additional debt to build a new jail.

The discussion of paying for the new jail will come at the same time that county leaders will try to increase the county’s fund balance, or savings, address the county’s growing need for drinking water, consider technology purchases for county offices and, possibly, fund a five-year property revaluation project.

“We have more time to study (building a new jail) than we have money to build it,” Beaufort County Manager Randell K. Woodruff said.

The most contentious issue facing the Jail Study Committee will likely be the new location.

While the commissioners generally agree that a new jail should be sited on the north side of the Pamlico River, recent discussions by the panel have shown little agreement on anything else regarding its location.

Commissioner Hood Richardson is one of those who advocates for the construction of a new jail on county-owned land behind the Beaufort County Courthouse between Second and Third streets. But other county leaders have said there is not enough room near the courthouse to build it.

“I think we just need to pick a location that is going to serve the citizens of Beaufort County well for years to come,” said Beaufort County Sheriff Alan Jordan. “We need an ability to expand, to have access to other emergency services, services such as the hospital in case of injury to an officer or inmate. In times of flooding, it’s important that we not be cut off from vital resources.

I have preferences,” Jordan continued, “But it’s all part of the planning process that involves many different folks, many different entities…I intend to be as open-minded as possible throughout the planning process.”

According to Woodruff, the planning process, and reaching a decision on some of these issues, could take as long as two years.

“I know that getting a facility built is a big task,” said Capt. Catrena Ross, a member of the Jail Study Committee. “I would just like it to happen as soon as it possibly could happen.”

As jail administrator, Ross is hyper-aware of the dangers of the current facility.

“We’ve been graced,” she said. “We’ve got good officers…I just don’t want anything to happen down here, you know?

In addition to Ross, Beaufort County Commissioners Hood Richardson, Al Klemm and board Chairman Jerry Langley, Sheriff Alan Jordan, Superior Court Judge Wayland Sermons Jr., District Court Judge Michael Paul, and District Attorney Seth Edwards will be serving on the Jail Study Committee.