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Timeline for tax referendum set
Revenue could pay for new courthouse, jail
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Forsyth County News


Citing an example from a former colleague, Forsyth County's Chief Superior Court judge likened the criminal legal process to a funnel.

Addressing county commissioners, Jeffrey S. Bagley said the late Stan Gault told him it starts with arrests and the system backs up when it gets to the courts, or the neck of the funnel.

“Even though we of course have to maintain the responsibility in the judiciary to make sure the constitutional rights are protected of every single person held before our courts, we must become more efficient if we are to reduce the costs of taxpayers for housing these defendants awaiting trial," Bagley said.

Efficiency was at the heart of presentations Tuesday from Bagley and Forsyth County Sheriff Ted Paxton to the commission, which is considering a new detention center and courthouse as possible projects for an extension of the 1-cent sales tax.

An official decision on the sales tax referendum has not been made, but commissioners did vote 5-0 on Tuesday to approve a timeline mapping a route to a November vote that could include the facilities.

A continuation of the 1-cent sales tax has become a topic of discussion for government officials, though the current tax doesn't expire until 2013.

In March, county voters approved a similar measure for education and a vote on a regional tax for transportation looms in summer 2012.

Proposing to pay for construction of a new jail and courthouse through sales tax would be a new twist in a years-long issue.

The projects have not been an easy sell to local voters, who over the years have rejected plans to build one or both facilities in bond referendums.

Prior to the vote Tuesday afternoon, Bagley and Paxton reminded commissioners that the jail and courthouse, which are each more than 30 years old, were built when the county’s population was about 25,000.

Current census estimates show the population at about 175,000.

Paxton said the county has spent more than $14 million in the past decade to house inmates outside of the detention center on Veterans Memorial Boulevard, which has a maximum occupancy of 226.

By 2020, if nothing changes, Paxton said the county “will spend as a community over $66 million just to house prisoners out.”

County Attorney Ken Jarrard explained to the commission that while the referendum timeline is open for revision, it gives staff a framework to follow if the facilities are to come up for a vote.

The schedule includes dates for meeting with city of Cumming officials, as required by law, as well as for setting up an intergovernmental agreement and finalizing plans for the projects. 

The city and county governments would need to work together to determine a project list and how the money should be divided.

In 2008, the city and county entered into litigation over the city's percentage of revenue from the current tax cycle.

Commissioners approved the referendum timeline Tuesday after hearing from Bagley, Paxton and consultant, Jud Bryant, on the past, present and future of the county’s jail and courthouse.

Bryant noted that the county’s two Superior Court judges have managed 2,500 cases in the past 12 months, a figure that could be doubled in the next year “with the wave of a pen.”

He said judges are permitted to issue orders allowing lower court judges to sit in for them on Superior Court cases.

“The problem is that while we have that opportunity, we have no courtrooms available for that purpose,” Bryant said.

The state has not approved a third Superior Court judge for the county, though the local judicial system does qualify.

Bryant explained that the county could save money by implementing programs to improve efficiency, such as a comprehensive case and jury management systems.

“The problem is a comprehensive case management system requires an IT operation that needs to be installed in a building constructed in the late 1970s,” Bryant said. “That was built before computers were ever even available.”

Bryant noted the county has as many as three capital, or death penalty, cases looming this year. Each could cost about $1 million to conduct.

The county could save nearly $300,000 per case if it had ready-for-trial hearings in conference rooms. However, there are no facilities for such meetings.

Bagley said proper security is required in courtrooms where criminal legal proceedings are held and there are just two local courtrooms equipped with adequate security for felony cases.

“We have seen a projection of a 27 percent increase in criminal cases in the next 12 months,” Bagley said. “We’re projecting 2,000 felony cases in the next 12 months.”

Turning to the detention center, Paxton said the number of inmates kept at the facility fluctuates from 200 to 208 a day. The facility has already exceeded the year’s projection of 450 inmates housed daily in and outside the county.

About 85 percent of the jail’s inmates are there, Paxton said, because they are waiting to go through the court system. The remaining 15 percent have been sentenced and are awaiting transfer to the state prison system.

“The jail and courthouse feed off each other,” Paxton said. “One impacts the other and unfortunately our caseload has gotten so high, with what we’ve got now, it’s backing up in the jail.”