It is increasingly likely that the voters of Forsyth County will once again be asked to approve expending tax funds for the construction of a new jail and courthouse. Though still in the discussion stages, the most likely scenario is that the facilities will be part of a SPLOST referendum presented to voters this fall.
While it is too early to address the specifics of any such plan, there is no doubt that the new facilities are necessary. They have been for years, but county residents have repeatedly voted against the issuance of bonds, supported by property taxes, to finance construction.
The existing jail is woefully inadequate for a county the size of Forsyth. Not only is it too small, with less than a third of the recommended bed space, but also outdated in terms of efficient operation.
The county has been fortunate thus far in that the courts, as a result of litigation initiated by an inmate, have not stepped in to demand construction of a new facility; doubly fortunate in that the outdated design has not resulted in a major problem in operation of the jail.
Proposals for a new jail have repeatedly been put before the voters and rejected for a variety of reasons, one of which is the simple fact that people don’t like the idea of spending money on facilities for jail inmates. Often lost within that argument is the reality that those housed in the county jail are, for the most part, awaiting trial or bond and have not yet been convicted of a crime. Currently many of those inmates are being housed in neighboring counties at a significant cost to Forsyth taxpayers.
For the safety of law enforcement personnel, inmates, medical staff, and all involved in the operation of the jail, a new facility is desperately needed.
Similarly, the county’s burgeoning population has outgrown the existing courthouse. As a result, courtrooms are scattered all around town, office space is difficult to find, jurors are shuffled from place to place, and important legal documents are housed at a variety of locations. The current courthouse was designed for a county less than half the size of modern Forsyth.
Previous efforts to win approval for funding of a new jail and expansion of court facilities have failed for a number of reasons, all of which will have to be addressed by officials if the latest effort is to win approval.
In some instances critics have said cost estimates for construction were higher than necessary. The proposed location of new construction has been an issue; as has the ownership of property proposed for past expansions. A general lack of trust in the county government also has been a factor in previous attempts to win voter approval.
All of those issues will have to be addressed openly and often if the county hopes to have success whenever the issue is again put before the voters. Putting the courthouse and jail on a SPLOST ballot, which presumably would have other projects as well, may be an enticement to voters who in the past have said no to financing based solely on property taxes.
Deciding on the specifics of the projects is but the first step. Once that step is taken, officials then will have to embark on an educational campaign to convince voters that in tough economic times, these are projects that not only are essential, but can’t be postponed yet again.