[Nameplate] Fair ~ 41°F  
High: 77°F ~ Low: 55°F
Friday, May 6, 2016

It's time to lock up a decision on the new jail

Friday, October 28, 2011

"Why can't we just give them baloney sandwiches?" said a Justice of the Peace to no one in particular, as he looked at the jail's food budget at a recent meeting.

"The state can't shut down our jail, as long as we're trying to build a new one," said one citizen.

"Even if we could build it, I don't see how we can afford to staff and operate it," was the opinion of another citizen.

If you are among Fulton County residents grumbling about the plan to build a $2 million jail, I feel your pain.

In a county with a lot of needs, I can think of a long list of things that should come before an expensive new jail.

But, after sitting through meetings and looking into the issue, I have to agree with County Judge Charles Willett and Sheriff Buck Foley, when they say, "We can't afford NOT to build a jail."

The Problem

The truth is, a new jail should have been built years ago, and the cost would have been a whole lot cheaper.

State inspectors started pointing out as far as 20-years back that the Fulton County Jail is too small, too old and too dangerous to remain in operation in the modern age.

After years of watching the county ignore the jail issue, it appears state regulators are out of patience and unwilling to keep looking the other way.

Even if the jail is clean and well run, it will never meet standards all jails must meet to protect inmates and the public.

Our jail, with beds for seven male inmates, is located in a basement, a constant threat to inmate safety, if there is a fire or other emergency.

Since there is no area for visitation, inmates and their visitors sit in the tiny jail "lobby," a couple of feet from an unlocked door. The possibility of an escape attempt is a threat to the public safety.

The list of shortcomings goes on and on.

Three state inspectors who arrived Oct. 20 did not linger in the jail. I am told they just made it clear that everywhere they looked standards other counties have to meet are not being met here.

Bottom line from the state: unless the current plan to build a jail is approved and construction of a 24-bed jail is finalized, the current jail will be ordered closed.

Sheriff Foley has crunched the numbers and, if the jail is closed and all inmates have to be housed in other county jails, the county's budget problems will triple overnight.That is because it costs $45 a day to house a male inmate elsewhere, and $65 a day for a female prisoner.

Take about 400 local inmates a year, who will spend a total of about 2,200 days behind another county's bars over a year's time. Add in $30 each time a Deputy drives a patrol car to deliver or pick up inmates from the neighboring jail. According to the Sheriff, the total will be will over $200,000 year.

Quorum Court, which just spent three and a half hours trying to cut $100,000 to balance next year's budget, will tell you we don't have $200,000 laying around for anything, much less housing prisoners in other jails.

The Solution

When forced to build new jails, most counties propose a tax increase to pay for it.

Fulton County's plan does NOT involve a tax increase. County officials want voters to approve using a portion of an EXISTING tax to meet jail bond payments.

Revenue from a one cent sales tax, which was approved in 1989, is currently divided between the county general fund, the road fund and cities in the county.

If voters give their approval at a Nov. 8 election, 17.5 percent of the monthly sales tax revenue will be taken off the top to pay a jail construction payment of about $7,000. The general fund, road fund and cities will still receive their share of the sales tax revenue that remains.

One citizen at a recent public meeting about the jail project expressed the opinion that paying $84,000 a year through an existing tax is a better deal than spending more than $200,000 a year to house prisoners in other jails, if our jail is ordered closed.

It is true sales tax revenue has been down this year and no one knows when it will turn around. But the current reduced income is sufficient to meet the jail payment.

While county officials say they can run the larger, new jail with the current jail staff and budget, there could be additional operational costs. It seems everything always goes up.

Another question is, is the $2.1 million dollar cost estimate realistic? We won't know until bids come in but, if voters turn down the jail finance plan, the cost will automatically go up $300,000. That is because time to use a $300,000 federal stimulus grant approved for jail construction is running out. It is about to be taken away.

Decision Time

While there are always unknowns, it is time to face the facts.

Like it or not, Fulton County has needed a larger, modern jail for years, to meet state and federal requirements that inmates receive a certain level of care. While no one wants to coddle prisoners, if we are going to operate a jail, certain standards must be met.

Fulton County also needs a larger jail to meet public protection needs, now and in the future. We are already paying to house inmates in other jails, because we often have more than seven prisoners in custody, and every woman inmate has to be shipped out. A new jail should stop the flow of money we currently give to other jails, and we may be able to make some money by housing inmates from other jails with overcrowding problems.

The Fulton County Jail will include space to allow the Sheriff's Department to meet professional standards, and do a better job of fighting crime and protecting the public, which is another big need.

After all these years, there is finally a plan to finance a new jail without a tax increase.

So, I say vote "Yes" to using a portion of an EXISTING sales tax to pay for a new jail.

If you are planning to vote "No," what is your plan to deal with the problem?

Continuing to do nothing is no longer an option. Continuing to do nothing is going to cost the county $200,000+ a year it doesn't have, to house our inmates elsewhere.