07/05/09 — Jail still on list of county's priorities

View Archive

Jail still on list of county's priorities

By Steve Herring
Published in News on July 5, 2009 9:11 AM

Some of the legislative issues that had threatened to undo progress the county has made in reducing the jail population and possibly force its hand in building a new $53 million jail have faded from sight.

"Most of it, as I understand it, for lack of a better term has been squashed," County Manager Lee Smith said. "However, I don't close my eyes until they (legislators) slam the gavel down and go home."

One proposal would have eliminated the $18 per inmate received by the county.

"So far the $18 issue is off the table," Smith said. "We are still watching though. First, the reduction of the $18 per day per state-held inmate would cost the county $75,000-$100,000 in lost revenues."

That amounts to about a quarter of a penny on the county tax rate, he said.

"Even more than that $100,000 is just the numbers," Smith said. "Overcrowding has been a huge issue for Wayne County for years, and with everyone locally working together, Wayne County has been able to reduce our inmate numbers from our average of 260 plus per day to approximately 200 per day. That is a potential savings to the state and county of $900,000 per year in inmate-related operations and costs.

"Judge (David) Brantley, the DA's office, Judge (Arnold) Jones, the Sheriff's Office, Day Reporting, these folks have done a phenomenal job -- they dropped our population below 200 several times. We had not seen that in a lot of years."

Another proposal would add to the jail population.

Currently, people sentenced up to 90 days imprisonment must serve their sentence in the county jail. The proposal would extend that time period so that people sentenced to serve up to six months would serve their entire sentence in the county jail.

"That being said, if those numbers begin to go up, I think I would wind up going to the board of commissioners asking to move some money around to expand my Day Reporting Center program," Smith said. "And I don't know that we might do that anyway come January. We are going to evaluate it as a staff over the next six months to possibly even expand our electronic monitoring. It is a local program doing really well handling about 40 cases on average."

The electronic monitoring program saves the county $45-$50 a day per inmate versus having them incarcerated. It can cost upwards to $75 to house inmates in out-of-county facilities.

Electronic monitoring costs about $4 to $7 per inmate per day.

"So we are saving $40 to $50 per day per inmate," Smith said. "That is a lot of money. You are talking of getting into the $750,000 to $800,00 a year range on that program. I think that is something that we are going to seriously watch.

"As those (inmate) numbers go up, if you get sentenced offenders you'll have no choice but to keep them in jail because you will have no say-so."

It is inevitable that the county will have to build a new jail, he said. How soon that happens will depend on the state budget.

"I still think in that five-to-seven-year range of design with construction at the end of seven years," he said. "That $52 million to $53 million will turn into $63 million if we wait that long. You are talking a third of the total county budget on one facility. That's a lot of money."

But in building a new jail, the county also is looking at expansion of the courts themselves, tax, finance, clerk of courts, register of deeds and Smith's office being relocated where the jail is now.

"Working with the Sheriff's Office, Day Reporting Center, the DA's office and the court system, we intend to manage our inmate population in an attempt to hold off on construction as long as possible," Smith said. "We have estimated the cost of a new facility to be approximately $52 million at today's cost. I anticipate waiting for five to seven years, we will see the cost of that project increase by a minimum of 17 percent or $8.8 million.

"We do know that a better-designed facility could be operated at a lower cost per inmate and that those reduced costs will help in offsetting some of the debt along with renting bed space to other entities. The sheriff and I both continue to look for alternatives such as shared facilities, design, enhancements of the present facility to keep cost as low as possible to the citizens of our county."

Smith said he anticipates that certificates of participation (COPs) would be the county's best option for financing. COPs do not require voter approval. Since they are not backed by the government's taxing power, they come with a slightly higher interest rate, making them a more expensive way to fund projects.

COPs are basically a mortgage on the project they are funding. The land and buildings are used as collateral for investors who lend the money.

"However, we will research all probabilities for financing over the next several years," he said. "We are now experiencing major mechanical issues in the present facility due to age and will require major investments in areas of security, safety, heating and air conditioning and other areas."

The new jail could possibly be offsite, Smith said.

With that in mind, the county and local court officials are looking at a new video system that would allow first appearances to be conducted by video feed. Some eight to 10 counties already utilize such a system, he said.

The system would save money by reducing the time and costs associated with moving inmates between buildings.

"One thing they have in mind is the safety of personnel, the court system and public and safety of the inmates and the sheriff's office, the DA's office and clerk," Smith said. "It is much safer. And you could even do visitation of inmates by video with family. It is much more secure. We think it is something we could do pretty inexpensively.

"I am hoping to have a cost breakdown within the next 60 days to take to commissioners. We do have some money in court facilities that we get through fees."

Some of the systems include touch screens in which an operator may view different cameras or turn microphones off and on.

"We want something that is simple and that is going to be used," he said. "We don't want to invest in anything that isn't going to be used. We want to put in a system that could be expanded for an offsite facility so they are taking their time looking at different systems.

"My office along with representatives from the court system, county information technology, and the clerk of courts office will be visiting New Hanover County in July to look at its system that appears to be working great and was done at reasonable cost. The cost of the system will vary depending on use and requirements of the court system. We will know more after the New Hanover review."