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Editorial - New Sullivan County jail is worth the cost

• Sep 4, 2019 at 7:30 PM

Sullivan County is spending nearly a quarter of a million dollars for experts to examine the status of its current jails and recommend how best to expand them. That’s a lot of money, but as the old adage goes, you get what you pay for.

Question is, will county leaders take delivery on what they bought? Or will armchair architects chop away at the recommendations and penny-wise, pound-foolish politicians start nickel-and-diming it? Given the fiasco that accompanied the Sullivan County Commission’s recent adoption of a budget, those questions may have already been answered. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The consultant has presented a first pass on what the new jail might look like. Michael Brady Inc. presents itself as one of the top-rated, full-service architectural and engineering firms in the Southeast. Its initial design is to add five pods to the main jail and an addition to the jail annex, converting that into an all-female facility.

The project will more than double the number of beds, from 620 to more than 1,400. But since the jail currently houses about 1,000 inmates, that’s not a whole lot of wiggle room. But MBI says it should suffice for 20 years. MBI will provide at least two more design options along with more exact cost estimates later this year.

As to cost, MBI predicts this first proposal would come in at around $56 million, and that’s doable with only a slight tax increase. Even if $70 million is spent, that’s about $4.5 million in annual debt service and represents but a 12 cent increase on the property tax rate.

If you own a house worth about $100,000, it’s assessed at 25 percent, so you pay taxes on an assessed value of $25,000. The current tax rate is $2.57 per $100 of assessed value, resulting in annual taxes on that home of $642.50. Add 12 cents and the annual tax is $672.50, an increase of $30, or less than $3 a month.

The approach county commissioners will likely take to this desperately needed project is to opt for the cheapest solution and then hack away at that. Already, Jail Administrator Lee Carswell says he doesn’t think an expansion of the annex is necessary.

It’s the responsibility of county commissioners to review the recommendations, but they shouldn’t do so based on cost alone. One way to protect the investment taxpayers will be making in the new jail is to get a good second opinion, and the county can do that by bringing back the ad hoc jail committee it created in 2014 to examine long-range solutions to the jail problem.

Headed by Wally Boyd, that committee recommended the county hire the consultant and once all recommendations have been received, the county should solicit its opinion.

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