County wants state to waive jail rules
By Steve Herring
Published in News on March 12, 2014 1:46 PM
Wayne County Sheriff Larry Pierce, left, and Sheriff's Office Maj. Fane Greenfield listen as Wayne County commissioners Tuesday discuss asking the state to convey the old prison facility near Cherry Hospital to the county for use as a jail. Commissioners voted 6-1 to again ask for the property, as well as an exemption from having to update it to meet current jail standards. The board also approved another $300,000 to pay for housing inmates in other jails because of overcrowding in the local jail.
Wayne County commissioners not only want the state to give the county the former Wayne Correctional Center property for use as a jail, they want to be exempt from having to bring the old prison up to state jail standards.
Meanwhile the county budget continues to take a hit as chronic jail overcrowding will cost the county close to $1 million this year.
Commissioners Tuesday morning appropriated $300,000 to cover an increase in the cost of outsourcing inmates through the end of June. But even that might not be enough, they were told.
The prison closed in October because of state budget cuts, and commissioners view the property as a viable alternative to building a new $60 million to $70 million jail.
A feasibility study on using the prison and the existing jail has been on hold since December as the county waits on word from the state.
"We know what we want," Commissioner Steve Keen said. "We have discussed it. We sent a resolution to the General Assembly. We want them to act, and we want them to act now. We cannot afford to wait."
By a 6-1 vote, commissioners voted to send a second round of letters to local legislators and the governor asking for the property, but this time with the additional request.
Commissioner John Bell, who chairs the commission's Detention Center Advisory Committee, voted no.
Bell argued that jail and prison facilities are not the same. Properly upfitting the prison to jail standards is a matter of safety for the people who would work there, he said.
He also argued that commissioners need to talk with Sheriff Larry Pierce and his detention center staff to get their input.
But others on the board countered that the exemption would provide flexibility to allow the county to gradually make any renovations.
Also, having the exemption does not mean the county would use it, they said.
Bell's committee has not discussed such an exemption, and the jail was not on Tuesday's agenda, but was added by Keen.
Keen said he had recently spoken to local state legislators and that "it looks promising" that they can convey the property to the county.
Keen also said the board needed to stay focused and not "get distracted by other properties." He did not identify what properties he was talking about. No other sites have been publicly discussed by commissioners.
In an apparent reference to Bell's comments, Keen later in the meeting mentioned an effort to "muddy the waters."
Keen made the motion to send the letter and to ask for the exemption that had been suggested by Commissioner Joe Daughtery.
"It is my understanding that (exemption) is possible" Daughtery said. "The requirements of operating a prison unit are different and less involved than operating as a jail. As we toured that facility we saw a great deal of expense that we would bear by upgrading of the facility to jail requirements."
Bell told Daughtery that his point was well-taken, but that the state Jail Commission was not going to allow the county to use the prison as a permanent jail.
The county is going to have to upgrade the prison to meet jail standards, he said.
"Am I right Mr. Sheriff?" Bell said.
"Yes sir," Pierce said. "I think that you are right on that."
"If we are going to do a jail, fix it like you want it to be," Bell said. "There is more to a jail than locking the doors."
The county needs to do it right to start with so that it would not have to come back four or five years later and do it again, he said.
Commissioners used the cost of housing inmates in other jails to underscore the need for an expanded jail.
Keen asked county finance director Pam Holt if the county had budgeted for the $300,000 increase.
"No sir, we had an original budget of a half million dollars and we are at that point right now," she said. "This is annualizing the monthly cost that we have had in fiscal year 2013-14.
"This is what I have estimated what it will take to get us through June 30."
Since July, the cost to house the inmates elsewhere has averaged around $80,000 a month, she said.
The figures do not include outsourcing of juveniles.
That is handled by Juvenile Services, but the county still picks up the cost of about $8,000 a month.
"This is a growing problem," Interim County Manager George Wood said. "I asked the same question. I wanted to know if you cut back in previous budgets, but that is not the problem. The problem is this is growing. The (jail) population is growing."
"That goes back to what we were talking about earlier in the detention center, making sure that we get that conveyed because even if we don't use it we need to get it because we can use it for something," Commissioner Ray Mayo said.
For example, it could house people sentenced for misdemeanor crimes, commissioners said.
In response to questioning by Keen, Sheriff's Maj. Fane Greenfield, who supervises the jail, said the jail currently has 217 inmates --17 over its limit.
Another 42 are housed elsewhere at a cost of approximately $50 per inmate per day, he said.
The county average about 65 inmates outsourced, he said.
"Right now we are at the lowest point that we have been in a long time," Greenfield said. "Since the holidays to right now, it has been our lowest point. It is getting warm so our numbers are getting ready to change, they always do. They go up."
Mrs. Holt said that the expected increase was not taken into consideration in calculating the $300,000, but rather was based on history.
"If that is the case, we may have to come back to you before year end," she said.
Keen said it would "be good" to have those numbers now so that Wood could have them as he works on the budget.
"We are going to be looking very carefully at what the numbers are, say over the last 18 months," Wood said. "I want to look at the trend. Obviously, the trend is not good."
Keen suggested that language also be incorporated into the board's letter to the governor and local legislators.