02/05/09 — $700,000 in jail work necessary, Smith says

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$700,000 in jail work necessary, Smith says

By Steve Herring
Published in News on February 5, 2009 1:46 PM

Overcrowding at the Wayne County Jail isn't a new story, nor is the $53 million solution that the county had hoped could wait at least another five years.

Now, however, it appears that the jail issue is rushing toward the county like a brick wall, County Manager Lee Smith said this week.

Just last week Sheriff Carey Winders said that some 15 people arrested on drug-related charges probably would have been picked up earlier if it hadn't been for an overcrowded jail.

Smith told commissioners at their Tuesday planning retreat at the Goldsboro Country Club that some decision about the jail will have to be made within 24 months.

Even if a decision was made today, it would still take two to three years to construct a new jail, Commissioner Jack Best said.

Meanwhile, needed work at the 16-year-old existing jail could cost the county upwards of $700,000 in the coming months regardless of whatever decision is made about a new facility.

Replacing the air conditioning unit at the jail will cost between $200,000 and $300,000. Other fixes, including ones linked to security, will push the cost much higher, Smith said, citing the $700,000 figure. County officials did not want to disclose the details of those repairs for safety reasons.

"We have got to fix it regardless of what we decide," Smith said in an interview after the retreat. "Even if we put it (a new jail) off another 4 to 5 years there are things that we will have to do at the jail. We will have to invest money."

The county also needs to continue to look at other ways to reduce the jail population, such as through electronic monitoring, he said.

Smith said he is unsure if he will ask commissioners to reinstate the jail liaison position -- a job that included managing inmate mail, maintaining a list of court-appointed attorney visits with incarcerated clients and checking on other charges an inmate might be facing.

"At the earliest it would be the next fiscal year, and I would recommend it be under the Day Reporting Center," he said.

Smith terminated the county's contract in November for a temporary employee who had been filling that position for allegedly falsified timecards.

The county's decision on a new jail could be forced by the state if the overcrowding worsens. Complicating the issue is the possibility that the state will close four prisons as it hunts for ways to close what could be a $3 billion state budget shortfall.

That, Smith said, could increase the local jail population.

"There has been no room for years. That is not a new story," Smith said. "We need a new jail facility of about 500 beds."

Building a jail that size could allow the county to recoup some costs by renting out space to counties lacking adequate jail space, he said.

"It is still on the board to be done, but I have moved it out several years because, quite frankly, we cannot afford a $53 million jail and that is about what it is going to cost," Smith said. "We are onboard for schools, but in a down economy we can't afford it."

Smith said Winders has a tough job maintaining the jail and that his staff is in a dangerous position. Currently, there are more than 20 people in the Wayne lockup accused of murder.

He noted a recent escape in which an inmate overpowered and assaulted a guard.

"This is not about tax money any more, it is about lives," Smith said. "It's real interesting when I have people come up and say, 'Well you just need to make room for them, you need to get these criminal off the streets.'

"Okay, $53 million will cost, if had to borrow today to debt service it out, 5 to 6 cents on the tax rate to even get started and it would take 2 to 3 years to build it even if I started today."

Smith agreed that the current jail design is lacking, but noted that hindsight is "20/20."

"I think with a new jail we can do it better, it would be safer," he said. "We could use close to the same number of people, but house more by design. Our jail was not designed in the most efficient manner.

"I do think an off-site (outside the city) facility would serve downtown better. We could convert the (existing jail) space to into administrative space for the county -- Register of Deeds, tax office and make everything in the old courthouse and annex court space."

Doing so, Smith said, would allow security and utilities to be divided so that the building could be shut down as part of the county's four-day workweek.

Smith said that the jail population is close to 300 at present.

"That puts the county and commissioners on notice that the facility is of utmost importance," Smith said. "It is unfortunate, but in a down economy I am surprised their numbers are not even higher. I think we are fortunate it is not higher."

The possibility of Wayne joining forces with surrounding counties to build a regional facility was mentioned by several commissioners. Smith agreed it was a possibility, but raised concerns of how authority would be divided since the sheriff of each county has responsibility over their jails.

Others asked about housing inmates at jails in other counties. It costs the county about $48 per day to house an inmate, Smith said. The cost rises sharply when that same inmate is housed in another county where it can cost between $55 to $80 per day.

The cost, Smith said, does not take into consideration the manpower, time and mileage required.

"Somebody has to take them there and bring them back and the county is responsible for all medical care and when court happens we would have to go and get them," Smith said. "It is very expensive, but you have got to look at whether the county is better off doing that for some time or are you better off building a new jail. It is operational versus capital cost and that is the thing we are having to analyze."

Smith said Winders is doing the best he can working with the facilities the county gives him.

But, he said, the county will soon reach a "critical point" at which time the state could force the county to house inmates in other jails. It also could bring a lawsuit forcing the county to build a jail.

"We have plans on the books so that we can react to it if we begin to see movement by the state or federal government," Smith said.