07/10/11 — Jail on list of capital projects

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Jail on list of capital projects

By Steve Herring
Published in News on July 10, 2011 1:50 AM

Wayne County might have no choice -- a $75 million jail might be on the "cannot do without" list in the very near future.

The county's proposed $255.6 million capital improvement plan spreads a variety of projects ranging in cost from a few hundred thousand dollars to $72 million over a five-year period from 2012 to 2016.

However, County Manager Lee Smith has warned county commissioners that the plan needs to be revised in response to reduced revenues and other economic stresses on the county budget.

It will come down to what the county considers a necessity and affordable, he said.

Playing a preeminent role in how a revamped county capital improvement plan could look is a new jail that could cost the county approximately $75 million, which accounts for slightly more than 29 percent of the $255.6 million.

The county has labored to keep the jail population below 200 through the use of electronic monitoring house arrest in hopes of pushing the need for a new jail farther down the road.

But Smith and other county officials are worried that state legislation will negate those efforts. The most recent state proposal, Senate Bill 756, would "devastate" the county, Smith said. The bill, still in committee, would require a $1,000 bond, of which $150 would have to be paid, for people who qualify for pre-trial release using electronic monitoring.

Smith said it would be difficult for many people who come through the Wayne County Jail to pay the $150 and would lead to jail overcrowding, forcing the county's hand on jail construction.

"I have said if we go out 10 years we could do 'x' (for a jail)," Smith said. "That might not be the case anymore. One of the things that I would like to look at with (Sheriff) Carey (Winders), and he has been great to work with, is regional jails, contracting versus building or building where people would contract with us."

A second bill that is now law authorizes the Department of Correction to enter into voluntary agreements with counties for providing jail space for misdemeanants serving sentences of more than 90 days and up to 180 days, except for those serving a sentence for an impaired driving offense. Under the original language, the cost would have fallen on counties. However, under the final version, the state will reimburse the county for housing and related expenses for the misdemeanants.

Still, that will change the jail's baseline population data, Smith said.

"So if I had gone in two years ago and said I was going to build 'x' jail I would have been wrong today," he said. "I find out what the new rules are, granted they could be changed next year by the Legislature, but I think that you build with the best data that you have."

But first the county needs a chance to see how successful the Day Reporting Center and electronic monitoring is in controlling the jail population, Smith said.

"We need to be able to put sentenced offenders and pre-trial folks on this electronic monitoring that will save the county and taxpayers $30 to $50 per day per offender or person awaiting trial," he said.

The recently adopted county budget includes an additional couple hundred thousand dollars to expand the Day Reporting Center's electronic monitoring program so that the county can put off building a jail.

"That is saving us millions of dollars a year in operations and debt -- millions," Smith said. "I want to see how long I can do that for so I can get good data."

Smith said he had recently received a call from a local resident who was concerned that someone on electronic monitoring release could harm someone.

"There is a risk attached," he said. "The judges know that."

Smith said that the judges, Winders, the District Attorney's Office and Day Reporting Center officials look at the pre-trial and sentenced offenders every week and determine whether that person is a "good candidate" for the program.

Even then, there are still no guarantees, he said.

The old baseline data for the jail was 200 to 300 inmates while the new could be 500 to 600, he said.

"If that is the case, what size jail do I need to build?" he said. "I also believe having a 200-bed facility kind of mandates that the sheriff, my office, the court liaison, judges, the district attorneys, Day Reporting Center have no choice (but try to control the jail population) because there is no room in the inn. If I build 500 beds, do I fill them up and then talk about the Day Reporting Center? I would hope not. So let's get good baseline data first."

A 500-bed jail could cost the county upwards of $75 million or about 8 to 10 cents on the property tax rate just to pay the debt service, Smith said. Just a few years ago, the county was talking 10 years out for a new jail. Smith said he is no longer sure the county will be able to hold out that long.

"That (cost) was accounting for renting beds out," he said. "How much can you count on that? If there is a lot of jail construction in North Carolina, will there really be that kind of need for other counties (to rent jail space)? If we do build, do we send out kind of a press release to other counties and say, "We want to talk to you in advance. Are you willing to sign a long-term contract?'"

Smith said the county has been able to pay cash for some projects because of policies that resulted in more savings, creating a nest egg.

For example, the county in May paid $1.495 million in cash for three buildings, including the former Sportsman's World, on East Ash Street. It will spend $800,000 in cash for renovations so that it can house the county's senior center.

"We have paid our debt off," Smith said. "We do have the radio system, but short-term debt is gone."

Smith said as the county pays off debt that he does not want the operations budget "to eat" that debt up, but leave it available for future debt.

He compared it to paying off a car loan.

"The best thing you can do if you have a $400-per-month car payment, you pay it off in August then in September, you ought to take that money and put it in a savings account," he said. "So when you get ready to buy a car the next time, you have a terrific down payment or pay cash for the car.

"Well, that is what we are trying to do, the same thing. But when you talk some $200 million, I can't pay cash. I can pay some so we are trying to pay down some of these smaller projects, upfront pay some on design and engineering to reduce what we are going to do. Also, by putting money in capital reserves and general reserves that keeps our debt load down, but it also enables us to better the bond rating to get better (interest) rates."