At the May 14 meeting of Fulton County Quorum Court, Willett announced the county has parted ways with Lee and Associates Architects, the company it has used as its jail advisor for several years.
After voters approved a plan to pay for the $2.1 million jail on Nov. 8, Willett said Lee and Associates would quickly finish final plan drawings so the project could be bid out, and construction could begin as early as March.
"We've been trying to get some plans and some contract documents (from Lee and Associates) for about two months," Willett told Quorum Court. "The sheriff has gone down to the office -- the office was closed. I've called. He's called."
Finally, Lee and Associates met with Willett and Foley on May 3, and the news was not good.
"So we point-blank asked -- can the jail be built for $2 million, and they told us they couldn't do it," Willett said.
While Lee and Associates finally said they do not believe a jail can be built for $2 million -- an estimate made a couple of years ago -- a Tennessee company, Southbuild Team, believes it can get the job done.
Southbuild outlines plan
"We do specialize in this," Southbuild architect James Langford told Justices of the Peace. "I have worked on what I call 'country (rural) jails' for the last 15 to 20 years."
Mike Kelley, who manages the construction side of the company said, "We have done over 20 Arkansas projects, and a bunch of others -- all small, relatively small, country jails -- 20 beds or less to 300 to 500 (beds)."
Willett explained that he and Foley met with Southbuild, on May 3 -- the same day Lee and Associates bowed out. Since then, Langford and Kelley have met with Sheriff Foley, and they have come up with a preliminary footprint, or floor plan, to reflect what the sheriff wants.
According to Langford, his company is willing to complete the planning and bid the project as quickly as possible.
"We know the importance of economy," Langford told the J-Ps. "Here, we are looking for about 24 beds (in the new jail -- including eight to house female prisoners)."
Since money is tight, Langford said he will design and obtain bids for the secured jail area, offices and space for a small arraignment court. The design will be such that, after the bidding process determines true costs, the project can be scaled back if costs are high, or amenities added if they are lower than expected.
"We will have the ability to either pull back or add a little bit to the design, based on the actual bids," Langford said.
For example, covering the entire exterior of the jail with brick veneer would be preferred. If bids are high, office space and other business areas of the jail could be covered with vinyl siding to save money. In addition, the court space could be removed from the project, if necessary.
Mike Kelley explained a Southbuild employee would live in Salem, and be at the construction site every day to insure the jail is built to required codes and criminal justice standards. All work will be done by contractors chosen through the bidding process -- although the company tries to emphasize hiring local contractors as much as possible.
While Southbuild's approach sounds good, there is a potential problem. The USDA is involved in the project, since it is providing a $300,000 grant and a low interest loan to cover construction costs. USDA requires the hiring of a general contractor to oversee the project.
Southbuild uses a "construction management" approach, in which it oversees its projects, and USDA will have to give permission for the county to vary from the federal agency's usual criteria.
While information is being submitted to the USDA office in Harrison, it is not known how quickly it will decide whether Southbuild can be hired by the county.
Another problem has been that, while the county has known for years it intended to use the old Fulton County Nursing Home property on Main Street for the jail, it did not have the property surveyed or obtain quit claim deeds, mortgage releases and other documents needed to begin construction. The process of completing those tasks is continuing.
After Justices of the Peace asked the Southbuild representatives several questions, J-P Jim Bicker asked, "What is needed from us to move this forward?"
Judge Willett said Langford and Kelley would continue to work on a jail design, if Quorum Court would approve a $15,000 payment to Southbuild. According to Willett, that would allow the design process to continue and, if the USDA refuses to approve Southbuild's construction management proposal, that is the full amount the county would owe the company.
"That's it. We gamble $15,000 or we won't have a jail," Willett said.
Quorum Court members unanimously approved the $15,000 payment to Southbuild, although County Attorney Dwayne Plumlee has yet to look at the company's contract proposal.
After receiving last November's voter approval to re-allocate existing sales tax revenue to cover construction loan payments, Willett said "dirt work," site preparation, would begin in December, and construction should be underway by March.
Neither of those goals have been met, and the county is now under intense pressure to bid the project and get construction underway by July.
It is expected to take at least a year to build the jail and, if the work is not completed by July 2013, the county will lose its $300,000 federal grant.
In addition, a recent jail inspection noted no progress toward correcting violations, and a recommendation was made to ask the Attorney General to order the jail closed. After the November vote allowing a new jail to be built, the Criminal Detention Facilities Review Committee indicated the old jail could remain open while the new one was being built. The new recommendation that the current jail be closed may be an indication the Facilities Review Committee is frustrated to see there has been no visible progress over the past six months to build the new jail.
Nursing home work
The week of May 14, county workers completed the demolition of the southwest corner of the old nursing home. The original jail plan called for connecting the new jail to the nursing home, so the nursing home laundry and kitchen could be used by the jail.
While the county still intends to put some county offices in the nursing home and, perhaps, lease office space to private companies, Southbuild officials said their jail design will include a small kitchen and laundry facilities, so the jail and nursing home will no longer need to be physically connected.
After the meeting, Langford told The News Southbuild first contacted the county in 2009 about helping with the jail project, and the county recently contacted the company about its problems. Langford expressed confidence has company can produce a secure, quality jail for the $2 million budget the county has to work with.
In other business, the Quorum Court received another dismal financial report. According to Treasurer Donna Hall, sales tax in April was down $3,000, compared to April 2011, and other revenue was also down.
"We are over $12,000 short (in the budget), compared to last year," J-P Michael Barnett said.
Rather than discuss budget cuts, J-Ps accepted Judge Willett's suggestion that they look at budget cuts at next month's meeting.
At the June meeting, the court will also appoint a replacement to fill out the term of County Collector Calvin "Buster" Smith. Smith has resigned his position as of June 30. Smith's assistant, Michalle Watkins, is running unopposed for the office. A replacement will have to be named to serve from July 1, until Watkins takes office in January of 2013.
The next regular meeting of Quorum Court is scheduled for Monday, June 11, at 7 p.m. at the Fulton County Courthouse. The public is invited to attend.