County won't wait on state for jail
By Steve Herring
Published in News on June 18, 2014 1:46 PM
An officer walks toward the Wayne County Jail this morning. County officials are looking at several options for expanding the jail since efforts to obtain a former prison from the state have stalled.
It could be years before Wayne County knows whether the state will give it the shuttered Wayne Correctional Center to use as a jail -- time that the county cannot afford to wait, the county commissioners' Facilities Committee said Tuesday.
But while the initial fervor over that possibility has cooled, committee members, particularly Commissioner Joe Daughtery, could not bring themselves to abandon it altogether even as they agreed to have an architect study other options.
Commissioners want to get the project moving because the county is losing money every day on its chronically overcrowded jail. It is costing the county nearly $900,000 a year to house the overflow of inmates in other counties.
Moseley Architects of Richmond, Va., has been hired to design the detention center. However, the county cannot negotiate a contract with Moseley until it comes up with a possible site and a scope of work. If approved by the full commission, the options the committee agreed upon Tuesday will allow the process to start.
County Manager George Wood asked the committee for a consensus as to what to recommend to the full board of commissioners because he couldn't talk to Moseley about the scope of work until he knows whether the old prison would still be part of it.
"We are at a point where I think we need to make a decision on do we want to study that one (prison), or drop it," Wood said.
Committee Chairman Ray Mayo said he did not think the county should spend any money on it (prison study), but rather look at other options.
The options discussed Tuesday include renovating county-owned property on North William Street and reviving plans to close a block of Chestnut Street and building a new annex in the parking lot across the street from the current jail.
The third option, one that the county has struggled to avoid, is to build a completely new jail that could cost up to $70 million.
While the old prison would not be among the options, it would remain in the background, committee members said.
The county has set aside $5 million for the jail project.
The old Masons property on North William Street was purchased by the county several years ago with an eye toward its serving as a possible home for the Wayne County Health Department.
The William Street property is looking "more attractive" than the prison even if the county could get it, Mayo said.
Commissioner Wayne Aycock said the old prison initially had appeared to be the best decision to make for the taxpayers, but that no longer seems to be the case.
Commissioners first mentioned the possibility of using the site last month after Commissioner John Bell, chairman of the board's Detention Center Advisory Committee, said a backup plan was needed.
Bell also cautioned that the county could put a lot of work and money into the prison only to have the state take it back.
Commissioners had been lobbying for the prison site since state budget cuts closed it last October. The county's legislative delegation supports giving the property to the county.
Wood told the committee he had finally been able to talk by phone with Division of Adult Correction Commissioner David Guise about the prison.
"I explained the situation, told him we had determined who the architect would be, and that we needed to know where we were because frankly it was holding us up," Wood said.
The state first has to determine it has no need for the property, Wood said. It is declared surplus property and sent to another agency and finally to the Council of State that determines whether or not it will get rid of the property, he said.
"He said in most cases they do not convey it free of charge," Wood said.
Guise said he did not know if such property had ever been given to a county free of charge, Wood said.
Complicating the issue is a federal case in which law enforcement seized a large number of Internet gaming machines, he said. Those machines are now stored at the old prison, Wood said.
"He had to agree with me that none of us know how long that case is going to take," Wood said. "A lot of federal criminal cases get appealed. So if it goes to appeals, you are going to the U.S. Court of Appeals. We could be tied up for several years on this.
"Then you have to go through the (state surplus) process. Here is the other thing that he told me -- it is never totally over until it is over. He said, 'Let me give you an example. I am being ordered now to reopen two prisons that we closed.' I think it was because of juveniles. Because of some changes in the law the state did, they need two more juvenile facilities."
Aycock said he had spoken with state Sen. Louis Pate, who had asked about progress on the project.
"I told him it was basically at a standstill because we didn't know what the state was going to do," he said. "I said initially it looked very attractive, but the further we get into it the less attractive it looks."