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Locked out: Voters reject bond questions
Jail, sheriff's HQ fail to draw support
JAIL exterior 11-5-08 jd
The Forsyth County Detention Center, off Veterans Memorial Boulevard near downtown Cumming, will stay put for now after voters rejected a bond that would have funded construction of a new facility. - photo by Jim Dean

For the fourth time in eight years, a proposal to build a detention facility in Forsyth County has failed.

With all precincts reporting, 39,131 voters, or 55 percent, rejected a $75 million bond, to be paid back over 30 years, to build a 226,000-square-foot jail with 480 beds. About 45 percent of voters, or 32,044, supported the plan.

In addition, voters also turned down a separate $16 million bond with a 20-year repayment schedule for a 51,000-square-foot Forsyth County Sheriff's Office headquarters on the same site.

The margin of defeat was similar, a 54 percent to 46 percent ratio, or 38,086 voters against to 32,738 in favor.

Forsyth County Sheriff Ted Paxton thanked those who supported the measures, but said the results were disappointing.

"It is gratifying to recognize your attempt to correct the situation we find ourselves in, however, the perception from the approximate 38,000 who voted against the bonds is they are content to continue wasting our tax dollars to rent bed space to house inmates in other facilities," he said.

While the county averages 300 inmates a day, only about 135 of those are kept in the jail near downtown Cumming. The remaining 165 are housed in facilities elsewhere.

"In addition," Paxton said, "those voters have created the perception that they have no concern for the inadequate facilities the employees are forced to continue to work in."

The detention center plans also called for medical facilities and Magistrate Court and the ability to expand the jail to house up to 1,500 inmates.

Property owners of homes assessed at $100,000 and appraised at $250,000 would have paid $52 a year for 30 years to pay the jail bond back had it been approved.

The additional cost for the headquarters would have been $13.50 per year for 20 years for the facility.

The Forsyth County government bought the site for the proposed jail and headquarters, 33 acres off Veterans Memorial Boulevard, in 2007 for $7.1 million.

Unlike prisons, the primary purpose of a jail is not to house convicted criminals. Rather, they are for those accused of crimes in cases that have not yet gone to court.

Opponents of the jail have cited its location near the Wyngate subdivision, where some residents would have found themselves living 72 feet from the facility, as a reason to turn it down.

Others, citing the country's current economic turmoil, have said they just didn't like the price.

Clark Montoya, who lives in Wyngate, said he was cautiously pleased the measures failed.

"My feeling is that this is a small victory in a battle, if you will, not the war," he said. "The county still owns the land. I'm interested to see what the next step is."

Montoya said he has started asking around about the future of the property, but hasn't received any solid answers.

"They could still use the land," he said, adding that he wonders if the county has enough alternative sources of funding to build the jail on the site anyway.

Forsyth County grand jury presentments over the past few years have included the recommendation that the county expand its sheriff's headquarters, courthouse and jail.

Eventually, Paxton and others have said, the federal government could step in and order the county to build the facilities.

Forsyth County Commission Chairman Charles Laughinghouse said Wednesday morning that the question of what the county will do with the property is "a little premature."

"Since the vote was just yesterday and the results were last night we've had no conversations on it at all," he said.

Laughinghouse said talks likely won't happen immediately.

"I think we may let things kind of sit for a little bit and decide, do we want to hang on to the property?" he said. "If a federal judge says you've got to build a jail, you have the property.

"At some point, it might be put back on the market and sold for commercial or industrial use. Right now, I really don't know."

Paxton said he is not surprised with the outcome of the recent vote, given that one or more members of the Forsyth County commission were "actively campaigning against their own initiative."

"I understand that presently I am responding emotionally to this situation, but it is difficult to withhold emotion when the losers in this initiative are the outstanding and dedicated employees of the sheriff's office," Paxton said.

The sheriff has maintained it costs about $19 per inmate per day for a bed, meals and shelter at the current jail. For the same services to house them elsewhere, it's about $45 per day for each inmate.

He has also noted that maintenance at the 32-year-old location is at an all-time high and cited crowding and unsafe conditions for employees as reasons for a new jail.

In addition, the sheriff's office has no centralized headquarters building and about 200 employees are scattered in seven locations.

Paxton said the buildings range in age from 40 to 70 years old and are "contaminated with mold, infested with rats, some with plumbing systems that have failed and no longer have running water or toilet facilities."

"The perception is that those voters have told the employees of the sheriff's office that those substandard conditions are good enough for the very people who place their life on the line every day in this community," he said.

Montoya said he understands Paxton's concerns and doesn't doubt a sheriff's administration building and jail are needed.

"There's no doubt about that," Montoya said. "But now is the time to come together and try to find a solution that works for everyone rather than having something forced down their throats."

But it's not the first time voters have said no to a request for a new jail.

In March 2000, a combined ballot question of $18.9 million for a detention center and sheriff's administrative offices failed.

In November 2001, voters turned down a combined ballot question for a $75 million justice center to house a detention center and courthouse.

Then in March 2004, voters again decided against a combined question for a $65 million jail and courthouse package.

Paxton said he thinks had voters been asked to approve the bonds in July, they may have passed.

"I think in July in the primary what we had turn out then and what we typically have in most instances, if you go and look at the voter turnout, we have a core group of voters of about 15 to 20 percent that will always turn out in every election," he said.

"But this one got thrown into a presidential election, when you have a tremendous number of people who come out that are coming to vote for a presidential election and they may not be as well informed on local issues as other people are."