Current jail facilities are built to hold about 620 inmates, but have typically held 800 to 900 or more in recent years.
The Sullivan County Jail came close to losing state certification — a move that would cause loss of state funding and potentially put county taxpayers on the hook to pay for ensuing lawsuits — more than four years ago. It has been allowed to maintain its certification only because the county has been able to show it is working toward a solution to ongoing overcrowding in the jail.
To date, the work toward a solution has been to form a jail study committee to come up with a recommendation on how to address overcrowding. That committee submitted its findings in late 2017: Hire an architectural firm to evaluate the current jail “campus” and facilities to see whether and how current facilities can be used and expanded.
The commission subsequently directed the county’s purchasing agent to seek “requests for qualifications” from firms interested in vying for the job. The purchasing agent put out the RFQ a year ago and by March 2018 had seven responses.
A group of county officials narrowed the list to four. Then a few months ago — after the August 2018 county general election — the four finalists were invited to come to Blountville to give individual presentations to those officials (including Mayor Richard Venable, Accounts and Budgets Director Larry Bailey and Sheriff Jeff Cassidy). The public and media were barred from those meetings. In the end, the group chose MBI to do the work at a cost “not to exceed” $225,000. When the commission first asked the purchasing agent to seek proposals in late 2017, the cost then was estimated at $100,000.
That $225,000 isn’t in the current county budget. But by approving the recommendation to hire MBI, the commission approved adding that amount to this year’s budget, taking it from general fund surplus.
Commissioner Pat Shull asked if the commission could approve the contract without it having gone through a bid process. Venable said it could because the law allows this type of specialized professional hiring to be done without a bidding process.
Commissioner Larry Crawford asked what kind of expertise MBI has in designing or building jails.
Venable said the firm is very experienced in such work, and a representative of MBI said the firm has completed or is working on jail and justice center projects for multiple counties across the state, including Campbell, Anderson, Monroe, Loudon, and Blount — with work for the latter including a program similar to what the firm understands it is being asked to do for Sullivan County: expanding the jail and/or a transition center.
Crawford also wanted to know if the firm would be working with Cassidy and his department to develop plans. The MBI representative said it would be a close collaboration, especially with projecting inmate population estimates for five years out, 10 years out, and so on. He was unable to give a time estimate on how long it will take MBI to complete the evaluation and produce a recommendation.
The committee that had met for three years recommended building or expanding the jail to a capacity of 1,000.
Commissioner Colette George was the only one to ask if commissioners could be given more information on how many firms sought the job and how the decision was made to recommend MBI.
Venable told her he would be happy to make an appointment for her with the purchasing director to privately go over those details, which he said are not generally made public.