Board votes to ‘stop the jail,’ but not yet

Published 6:26 pm Tuesday, December 2, 2014

NEWS_JAIL MOVE_130620_WEBA new Beaufort County Board of Commissioners voted to not quite “stop the jail” completely Monday night. The 4-3 vote was divided along party lines.

At the motion of longtime Commissioner Hood Richardson, Richardson, Gary Brinn and new commissioners Ron Buzzeo and Frankie Waters voted to put a stop to all spending on the planning of a new Beaufort County public-safety facility in Chocowinity. The motion was an edited version of a resolution provided by Stop the Jail Committee Chairman Harold Smith during the public comment period earlier in the meeting.

The vote determined all contractors and county staff working on any part of the jail planning should cease and desist immediately and that County Manager Randell Woodruff should effect the cessation of any county resources used for the project. An audit of how much money has been spent on the planning phase of the jail project is now due at the commissioners’ first meeting of the new year.

Woodruff said there are very few fees remaining for the planning work that’s been done so far.

The subject of a new jail has long been a hot-button issue among county residents, many of whom believe that a $22 million facility should not be built without consent through a public referendum, or could possibly be built without an increase in county property taxes. A 4-3 majority on the previous Board of Commissioners started the planning process, to which $2 million was allotted.

Richardson’s motion did not put a final stop to a jail: certain parts of the resolution that likely would have put an absolute end to plans were removed due to an SBI investigation into the recent death of an inmate at the Beaufort County Detention Center. Proponents of a new jail have long argued that safety concerns for inmates and detention officers require a new facility, rather than improvements to the existing one, which is located in the basement of the Beaufort County Courthouse.

According to Richardson, had the suicide of inmate William Gares not happened, the plan to build a jail without the public’s consent would have been killed completely Monday night.

“I think it panicked some of the commissioners,” Richardson said of the suicide, which Richardson attributes to human error as opposed to any safety issues at the jail.

Gares, assigned to an individual cell within the E block, hung himself Sunday.

Buzzeo said until commissioners have a chance to review the SBI report and talk to Superior Court Judge Wayland Sermons Jr., further action would be postponed. Sermons previously issued a court order to the Board to keep him continually apprised of planning for a new jail, as well as repairs to the existing one. In the summer of 2013, electrical problems in the jail led to all inmates being farmed out to other facilities, at an immense cost to the county.

During discussion, Waters said, a new jail had been “rammed down” county residents’ throats and that the county needs public input and to make sure it has a business plan that justifies spending any money on such a facility.

The 4-3 vote was met with a round of a applause from some audience members.