Jail continues to be hot topic: Heated discussion as commissioners talk cost, impact

Published 8:49 pm Tuesday, April 8, 2014

More fireworks regarding the building of a new Beaufort County jail shaped the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners meeting Monday night.

Beginning with Commissioner Gary Brinn’s motion to halt work on architectural plans until it was clear that Chocowinity was not just willing, but prepared, to have a jail built in its industrial park, and ending with a discussion about whether soil conditions at the proposed site could support a large building without additional support — and cost — the commissioners addressed a variety of issues surrounding what has become a controversial topic in recent months.

One issue questioned was whether Chocowinity was capable of handling the additional sewage capacity necessitated by an occupied jail.

“The town has indicated they can serve the facility,” answered Randell Woodruff, Beaufort County manager during the meeting.

Chocowinity Mayor Jimmy Mobley confirmed that Tuesday.

“The capacity they’re requesting, yes, we can,” Mobley said.

Mobley said the town has asked the county to send the Chocowinity town board specifications in writing and added that Chocowinity residents should not be concerned that the proposed jail would impact sewage capacity for the rest of the growing town.

A new Beaufort County jail has an estimated price tag of $20 million, $2 million of which has already been approved by the board for the planning and schematics of the facility. The jail/law enforcement center, which would house the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, comes in at $18 million, with another $2 million allotted for updates on the Beaufort County courthouse where the jail is currently housed in the building’s basement. The proposed 25,000 square-foot complex would also house Beaufort County Emergency Management, a 911-call center and an impound lot, while a separate evidence-storage building could be built if excess funds are available upon completion. According to Woodruff, funding for the jail’s construction will come from the county’s General Fund.

Commissioner Hood Richardson, backed up by Commissioners Gary Brinn and Stan Deatherage, raised concerns about the economic impact moving the jail and sheriff’s office would have on downtown Washington, implying that further down the road law offices and the courthouse would follow. Board Chairman Jerry Langley, Ed Booth and Al Klemm disagreed.

“Most of the (lawyers) I’ve talked to who do criminal work believe it’s imperative to be close to those they’re representing,” Deatherage said.

“Studies indicate that lawyers are more likely to visit their clients through videoconferencing and they love it,” Klemm answered, later adding that there “is absolutely zero intention of moving the courthouse.”

Richardson and Deatherage also objected to the jail committee — of which Langley, Klemm and Commissioner Robert Belcher are a part — making decisions regarding jail construction without the approval of the entire board. Klemm said the committee hadn’t made any decisions, while Langley informed the board that the meetings are being recorded and anyone is welcome to view them.

Moseley Architects is scheduled to start schematic designs for the new facility on April 11, and with an aggressive schedule, plans are to have the project going out to bid in October, according to Langley.

According to Richardson, during the past several commissioners’ meetings, he has made a motion to request that Superior Court Judge Wayland Sermons Jr.’s court order be lifted, as the county has spent $700,000 on the existing jail in order to bring it up to code and pass inspection. Richardson said since the jail is now in compliance with the court order issued when the jail was closed last year due to electrical and other safety issues, the order should be lifted. Richardson claimed that the commissioners in favor of a new facility are in an “illegal agreement with a judge to build a jail.”

“What you have got is good old-fashioned collusion,” Richardson said.

In response, Langley made a motion to prohibit for the next six months, any motion regarding lifting the court order. It was seconded by Belcher and passed 4-3.

The jail committee will meet today at 3 p.m. at the county administrative offices in Washington. Moseley Architects and M. B. Kahn Construction will give reports about the on-going jail design project.