Members of the Forsyth County Tea Party had plenty of questions for Sheriff Ted Paxton.
During a meeting Thursday night, the county’s top law enforcement official spoke to the group about the need for a new jail and courthouse.
Officials have discussed building the facilities, along with a new, multi-story parking deck, in downtown Cumming for $100 million. The funding could come from an extension of the 1-cent sales tax.
While the current tax will not expire until 2013, residents could be asked to vote on an extension as early as November.
Artist renderings released by the county show a new four-story courthouse across the street from the current facility, with an expanded parking deck behind it.
The detention center would be an expansion of the current site off Veterans Memorial Boulevard, with a connection to the courthouse across the street either underground or by way of a catwalk.
Efficiency and the proximity of the facilities are key, officials have said.
The current structures, which date to the 1970s, are overcrowded. County courts are also spread out in five locations, which could be reduced to three with the new building.
Thursday night, Paxton told the tea party group that from 2001-10 the county spent more than $10 million to house inmates in other jails, which resulted from a lack of space in the local facility.
He said if the practice continues, the county could spend an additional $66 million in the next decade.
“Over a 20-year period we’re looking at nearly $80 million we have expended as a community to house inmates in other jails,” Paxton said.
He explained that the county’s inmate population has already exceeded the 2011 projection of 450 and it's still May.
Paxton said a majority of county inmates who have to be sent elsewhere go to the facility in neighboring Hall County.
Hall's 1,026-bed jail, which was built as part of a 1-cent sales tax program, opened in late 2007.
But officials there have told Paxton that in five to seven years the Hall facility will be saturated with its own inmates.
Members of the tea party group submitted questions on issues ranging from immigration and the sheriff’s budget to the jail and courthouse proposal.
In response to a query on the local impact of House Bill 87, Paxton explained that deputies are empowered to check the immigration status of someone who is being arrested.
However, he said authorities already had the ability to do that because of participation in the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement initiative called Secure Communities.
The program uses digital fingerprinting to show the suspect’s criminal background and immigration status.
On another question, Paxton said he couldn’t explain why sheriff’s offices in Cherokee and Hall counties have smaller budgets, though larger populations, than Forsyth.
“Without looking at their two budgets, I don’t know,” Paxton said. “Our budget has certainly grown. We have had an increase in personnel over the last several years.”
He went on to say the sheriff’s office employed about 140 deputies in 2001 and this year has 297 deputies.
The budget is reviewed and approved by the county commission annually, as are all of the sheriff’s office positions, Paxton said.
He also noted that the county does not own all the property needed for the jail and courthouse projects.
The county does own an existing parking deck across from the administration building, but not the piece of property in front of it, which is where officials are considering building a new courthouse.
He said land acquisition is under the commission’s authority.
County Attorney Ken Jarrard has previously said the county has signed proposals from those property owners to sell the land if the 1-cent sales tax extension is approved.