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Lowdown on the lockup
Foes of jail plan target its cost, size and site
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Forsyth County News

When it comes to the location as well as the cost, opponents of a plan to build a new detention center say they aren't willing to use their property taxes to bail Forsyth County out.

Few dispute the need for a new jail in the county. The price tag, however, is a sore point, one that has drawn increasing scrutiny from those against the plan.

Why, they ask, is Forsyth building a 480-bed jail for $75 million when neighboring Hall County built a facility that can house 1,026 inmates for $54 million? They liken the project to an upscale hotel or Taj Mahal.

They are also angered by a second bond referendum on the Nov. 4 ballot, one that would fund construction of a new headquarters for the Forsyth County Sheriff's Office.

But contrasting Forsyth's proposals with Hall's facility or the detention center recently completed in nearby Dawson County is not that cut and dry.

Rather, it would appear to be more a case of comparing apples to oranges, with the differences varied and complex and ranging from the timing of each project to its scope. Perhaps the biggest distinction lies in the funding mechanism.

Hall and Dawson counties, which both opened their new jails in October 2007, paid for the projects with 1-cent sales tax money, not bond measures.

And, Forsyth County Sheriff Ted Paxton is quick to note, the economy has soured and construction costs have soared since Hall and Dawson counties built their facilities.

Fourth time the charm for jail?

No examination of the situation is complete without a brief history lesson.

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

Compounding the situation, though, efforts to fund a new jail have failed at the ballot box three times in the past eight years.

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

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

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

This time, the county separated the proposals for a detention center and administrative offices for the sheriff.

With early voting for the Nov. 4 election well under way, voters are being asked to approve a $75 million bond, to be paid back over 30 years, to build a 226,000-square-foot jail with 480 beds.

It would also house medical facilities and Magistrate Court and be built in such a way that the jail could be expanded to house up to 1,500 inmates.

On the same ballot, voters also are asked to approve a separate $16 million bond with a 20-year repayment schedule for a 51,000-square-foot Forsyth County Sheriff's Office headquarters.

If approved, property owners of homes assessed at $100,000 and appraised at $250,000 would pay $52 a year for 30 years for the jail.

For the sheriff's administrative headquarters, the cost would be an additional $13.50 per year for 20 years.

The Forsyth County government bought the proposed jail site, 33 acres off Veterans Memorial Boulevard, in 2007 for $7.1 million. The proposed headquarters is slated to go on a spot adjacent to the jail on the same property.

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.  

The location has drawn the ire of residents living in the Wyngate subdivision, some of whom could be about 72 feet from the facility, and others living in the county.

Their anger surfaced over the summer, as the county held a series of town hall meetings to gather input on the design of the proposed new jail.

Some of the residents contend they were not informed of the proposed location, despite reports in the Forsyth County News and other media outlets dating back to July 2007. They have challenged the proposed jail's location, funding and size.
Doing nothing could be expensive and just 'silly'

Paxton cites various reasons for the need to build a new jail, including that the current facility is 32 years old, crowded and "maintenance is at an all-time high."

He said it costs the county about $45 per inmate per day to be housed outside of the county, a figure that will rise with inflation. The cost to house inmates in Forsyth is about $19 per day.

Paxton said the county averages about 300 inmates per day, only 135 of whom can be housed at the current jail, which is also on Veterans Memorial Boulevard though closer to downtown Cumming. The other 165 inmates are kept in facilities elsewhere.

Furthermore, the sheriff's office has no centralized headquarters building, which Paxton said results in some 200 employees working out of seven different locations.

"They're not concentrated in any one place," he said. "They're scattered all over the place."

In talking about the current department setup, Paxton notes that the department's criminal investigations division occupies a former library built in 1966. The crime scene investigations office next door was built in 1953.

"That building has no water, it is shut off," he said.

It is shut off because the water pipes are in such a state of disrepair. Paxton said some repairs inside the buildings cannot be made because of asbestos.

"It is safe as long as you don't disturb it," he said. "But once you go in there and disturb it, then that mandates a total eradication of it. Well, obviously, the expense and cost of that far exceeds what the value of the building is."

He said the structures are so dated it has been difficult to adapt them to today's technology. He also noted that the buildings are not handicap accessible.

Paxton said he thinks using a bond to fund the jail is a wise option because it will allow the county to spend what is needed for a detention facility.

But had the county decided to list the jail as a 1-cent sales tax project, the money would likely have been diluted because of other projects.

The decision to use a bond instead of the penny tax was solidified by the Forsyth County commission in 2007.

Commission Chairman Charles Laughinghouse said constituents have repeatedly put transportation funding as a top priority for the sales tax vote over the years,

Laughinghouse said the county "wouldn't have any money for transportation" had the jail been put on the list of projects for the extension of the 1-cent sales tax.

Voters approved the measure, referred to as a special purpose local option sales tax, or SPLOST, by an overwhelming margin in February.

"If the bond issue doesn't pass, then you have another SPLOST vote coming up in 2013 or 2012," Laughinghouse said. "And at that time, whatever board is in office can consider putting the detention center and perhaps the courthouse on SPLOST at that time."

Ann-Margaret Johnston is a certified public accountant with Johnston & Associates in Cumming.

According to her evaluation of the costs of the current jail and savings in building a new jail, the price of keeping the old jail will exceed $75 million by 2020.

In other words, if nothing is done, the county will likely have spent $75 million maintaining the current facility.

That also would be about 12 years it could have spent paying back the bond, were voters to approve it.

She notes in her report that the "break-even point of the new jail would be in the early months of the year 2020."

To Paxton, it's clear.

"This silly notion that to keep doing what we're doing now is going to be more cost effective is exactly that," he said. "It's just a silly notion."

Johnston also points out that the new facility would create about 122 new jobs and that "the construction of the building [would] contribute to stimulating the economy in Forsyth County."

Neighbors built jails using sales tax money

Nikki Young, a spokeswoman for Hall County government, said that county's 230,000-square-foot facility cost $54 million to complete. Construction began in 2006.

"It's been a need in the county for years," Young said. "The old jail in midtown Gainesville was very overcrowded and we were paying other counties to house our inmate overflow.

"Now we have enough room in our new jail to rent the extra space to other counties, so the project was a good investment."

Young said planning for the Hall County facility, which has a 1,026-bed capacity, started in 2003.

"One of the benefits of the new jail is that it is located on 50 acres on Barber Road, which is south of Gainesville in an area that is mainly industrial and no longer in the middle of a business district in midtown," Young said.

She said the sheriff's headquarters is temporarily located at the county courthouse.
Hall County voters will decide in March whether to use $10 million from a 1-cent collection to relocate the headquarters and patrol division.

Hall's jail is designed in a more dormitory-like style than what is being proposed in Forsyth.

It is divided into two major components. Inmates are housed in a pair of six-story towers, while the other portion includes booking, medical, laundry, kitchen and master control functions.

Forsyth's plan includes a more pod-like design for inmate housing, which advocates say provides for better security.

Dawson County Manager Kevin Tanner said his county's jail was paid for out of 1-cent sales tax collections that began in 2006.

He said the facility, which is between 70,000 and 80,000 square feet, cost about $16 million and connects to the old jail.

"We did put a connecting hallway to the existing facility in so that we could make use of some of the existing space," Tanner said.

He said planning for the jail began several years before the county government slated it as a penny tax project. The need for a jail was examined as far back as the 1990s.

Dawson may be less populous and more rural than Forsyth, but the need for the jail was no less pressing.

Tanner said the new facility also houses the sheriff's office operations, such as investigations, warrants and animal control.

"I've worked here in the county for 19 years and we were all under one roof at one time," he said.

"We grew out of that and it was very difficult to manage an operation when we were so spread out. It's been a huge improvement."

Tanner said a hurricane and the rising price of steel in China, due to the recent Summer Olympics, had a negative effect on construction costs.

"We had some cost increases because of what was going on in the rest of the world, but we got the facility built and we've been in it now for a year and it's working out well," he said.

Opponents: Jail plan 'doesn't make sense'
In addition to challenging Paxton and the county government at town hall meetings, opponents have organized a Web site that focuses on the jail's location.

Move the Jail, as the group is called, also has manned a booth at the Cumming Country Fair & Festival, which ends today.

Wyngate resident Clark Montoya was on the forefront of the fight against the proposal, though he said he is not part of the neighborhood group that started the Web site.

He has backed off a little from the fight, he said, while still opposing the county's plan.

Montoya said he doesn't think the argument against the location will appeal to voters countywide. Rather, he questions the scope and the money.

"It doesn't make sense," he said. "The jail is too big for what we need. Based on projections given to us by the county, we're building a jail far bigger than we'll ever need if the crime rates continue the way they are."

Montoya cited the sluggish economy and the county's budget problems and related hiring freeze.

"This money that's being allocated for the jail construction is just for construction," he said. "Well if we build this jail, we're going to have to staff it and operate it. Where's that money going to come from?"

Montoya also cited the parks and recreation bond, approved by voters in February, which will be paid back with property taxes.

"Are the citizens really prepared to add another tax increase on top of that in these turbulent economic times?" he asked.

Montoya doesn't dispute that a new jail is needed, he just believes the solution may lie a different approach.

"I think we ought to put together a group of people who live in the city, people who live in the county and elected officials and the sheriff's office and sit down and see what we can figure out," he said. "Let's look at locations and see what makes sense."

Montoya added that the group should also consider whether it makes sense to house inmates outside the county.

"I think we need to stop what we're doing right now and examine the money and then go make a decision," he said.

If nothing changes, the federal government could eventually step in and order the county to build a new jail.

Paxton said that would likely result from a complaint being filed in federal court regarding conditions at the current detention center.

"It is an outdated, outmoded facility ... I just think that it's obvious, sooner or later, somebody's going to file some kind of an action. When is that going to be? I don't know," he said.

"One of the things that's going to be in our disfavor is the fact that we're not denying that we need a new jail ... Whenever the time comes and somebody files an action, that's going to be hard to defend."

The problem with a new jail, Paxton said, is that "nobody wants to go through with the funding."

The sheriff said he couldn't speculate on the cost were the feds to step in, though it would likely be expensive. It would be up to the county commission to decide how to satisfy the mandate.