In the Nov. 4 election, which will provide voters the opportunity to decide the fate of a new county jail, it could be said that officials are trying to learn from past mistakes.
In one form or another, the prospect of a new detention center has appeared on the ballot three times in the past eight years.
Up until this most recent bond referendum, it’s been presented to voters as a package deal, bundled with either the construction of a courthouse or sheriff’s facilities.
Last week, it seemed, commissioners were prepared to continue the trend of combining items into one ballot question, as they voted to put on the same bond referendum funding for new sheriff’s headquarters and the jail.
In a work session Tuesday, however, commissioners had a change of heart, voting 5-0 to rescind the July 22 decision to lump the items together.
Commissioner David Richard, who initially voted against combining the sheriff’s headquarters and jail, said the trend of two-item, one-question ballots is the very reason for past failures.
“You have to give voters the ability to choose one or the other,” Richard said. “Otherwise, you’re tying their hands.”
Richard cited the most recent attempt to fund the jail’s construction, which was presented to voters in March 2004 as a Justice Center, or a complex that included a courthouse and jail with a $65 million price tag.
“The Justice Center went down because of this,” Richard said. “When you stick two big things together on one question, some voters will hold their noses and vote for both, but some will also put their foot down.”
The referendum four years ago failed with 51 percent of the county opposing it, the narrowest margin since construction of the jail was first presented on the ballot more than eight years ago.
The March 2000 ballot question paired a new jail with a sheriff’s administration building for a combined cost of $18.9 million. It failed, garnering only 43 percent approval.
About a year and a half later, in November 2001, the jail issue resurfaced as part of the proposed Justice Center. It received even less voter approval, with 60.4 percent opposing it.
The $75 million jail stands alone on the Nov. 4 ballot this year with a 30-year repayment schedule.
A new sheriff’s headquarters, estimated to cost about $16 million with a 20-year repayment schedule, will be presented as a separate item.
Sheriff Ted Paxton, who took office in 2001, has said he supports having the bond referendums on the ballot as separate questions.
“If you roll it all into one package, some would favor one and not the other,” Paxton said.
He added that the sheriff’s headquarters is a need for the county, but the jail is top priority.
“If I had to weigh one against the other, the most critical one would be the jail,” Paxton said. “But I still believe both are very important.”
Lack of information
Past commissioners and officials have cited other reasons for the bond’s failure to win over a majority of county voters.
Following the defeat of the March 2000 bond referendum, then Commission Chairman John Kieffer said it was a lack of information that sank the deal.
Then-Sheriff Denny Hendrix agreed that more details and better planning may have yielded different results. He said at the time that the ballot was “rushed.” Had residents been able to learn more about the need for a jail, he said, the referendum may have passed.
Longtime Forsyth County resident Mary Helen McGruder said informing voters about the proposed jail is critical to the referendum’s success.
“The more information voters are given, the better it will be,” McGruder said. “It is critical to learn from the past in something like this.”
In anticipation of this fall’s referendum, County Manager Rhonda O’Connor and jail architects Pieper O’Brien Herr plan to hold several town hall meetings in August.
Residents can learn more about the jail and review its proposed design through detailed, digital renderings.
Richard said this information could be helpful in swaying voters.
“Last time we did this , we didn’t have good architectural designs,” he said. “We just had very basic artist renderings. Voters didn’t know exactly what they were going to get.”
Not only can voters learn exactly what they would get, this time they will also know where it would go.
Unlike previous bond referendums, Richard said, the county now owns property on which it could build a jail.
McGruder said owning that property will be an advantage.
“In the past,” she said, “we were asked to vote on a jail and courthouse without a definite location.”
Last summer, the county bought 33 acres off Veterans Memorial Boulevard.
“The land has been purchased for the sole purpose of putting a jail and sheriff’s headquarters there,” Paxton said. “If we’re able to get both bonds passed, there’s a good chance we’ll see a cost savings in construction ... down the road we could be fortunate enough to get a contractor to handle both at the same time.
“It’s never going to get any cheaper for us to start construction.”
While construction costs will be funded by a general obligation bond, if it passes, the amount the county paid for property cannot be reimbursed because it was bought more than a year ago, O’Connor said.
The property sits next to Wyngate Subdivision, where resident John Mack said homeowners in the 158-home development are not happy.
“Maybe if I was living elsewhere I’d look at it differently,” Mack said.
“It’s gonna tear up our property values. When you’re going to put a jail somewhere, you shouldn’t have to put it inside city limits. You have other options.”
Mack added that he does not look forward to “seeing a prison wall in my backyard.” But even he concedes that presenting the jail referendum question separately from a vote on the sheriff’s headquarters makes it “more likely to pass.”
O’Connor has worked with the jail architects for the last several months to get plans approved for the first of three initial design phases for the jail. O’Connor said getting started now will save money later.
The board approved the first two design phases, but stopped short of the third when funding, which was coming from bail bond forfeiture money, ran dry.
The county paid the architects $937,509 for detailed plans that will be used for town hall meetings and, according to O’Connor, to move up the construction schedule should the bond pass in November.
O’Connor has said the county could save $810,000 by completing the three preliminary phases and moving the schedule up three months.
She got the figures by crunching numbers: the cost of inmates to stay at other facilities, the number of inmates at other facilities and a 90-day jump start on construction.
Because of crowding at the existing jail, the county is forced to house some 200 prisoners in nearby Cherokee and Dawson counties, as well as Floyd County in northwest Georgia and Irwin County in south Georgia.
It costs the county $45 per day to house one inmate elsewhere, not factoring in transportation costs.
The commissioners voted 3-2 to stop funding at phase two when the bail bond forfeiture fund runs out.
Should the November jail referendum pass, architects have estimated construction could be completed by late 2011 or early 2012.