County officials debate new jail

By Jason Evans
Staff Reporter

COUNTY — County officials continue to look at options regarding a new jail facility but warn that just adding beds won’t solve the overall problem.

Overcrowding at the jail gained further attention after a fight between eight inmates in April.

Interim county administrator Tom Hendricks addressed the jail issue during his report to council at the May 2 county council meeting.

He said he’d recently met with an architect about a new jail. The architect presented two options — a one-story or two-story design, Hendricks said.

“We’re looking at somewhere between a 290- and 400-person capacity jail,” Hendricks said.

The one-story option would cost about $23 million. The two-story option would cost about $24 million.

“There’s a lot of hubbub about the fight over at the jail this past week,” Hendricks said. “Spending millions of dollars is not going to stop a bunch of people from doing what they normally do.”

He said Oconee County had spent $25 million on its jail over the past 10 years.

“Two weeks ago, they had a riot in their jail that injured two detention officers,” Hendricks said. “It was over the fact that there was no ice in the Kool-Aid. Unfortunately, the people they’ve got over there at the jail didn’t get there from attending church too many times.”

The county can spend money, he said, but officials need help from “the people who surround the jail.”

“The magistrates, the solicitor’s office, the judges,” Hendricks said. “I think it was suggested not long ago that we consider a night court or a weekend court, and two of the magistrates turned to salt.

“It’s not just brick and mortar. We’ve got to do something with the system — and the people in that system have to help.”

Municipalities often sentence someone to the jail and set their bail at the same amount as the fine associated with the crime, Hendricks said.

“The person they put in there doesn’t have the money, so he serves the max amount of time,” he said. “Then he’s dismissed for time served.”

“He’s staying in our detention facility, not prison?” councilman Tom Ponder asked.

“Yes, sir,” Hendricks replied. “It’s done that way, to see if they can force him to pay the bond.”

A new jail, with the cost estimates given by the architect, would require a tax increase of 55 mills, according to councilman Neil Smith.

“You guys get upset when we talk about two or three mills,” Smith told the audience at the meeting. “This is the biggest decision that we’ve got. This is probably the biggest decision we’ve got coming to us.”

Later in the meeting, Smith moved to amend the proposed 2016-2017 budget, to restrict the funding of any capital expenditures exceeding $500,000 “until the county makes a decision on the status of the county jail.”

“This is just good business sense,” he said. “I’m from that financial school that if I’ve got to deal with $24 million or $34 million in the next 12 months, I don’t want to spend all my money on other little projects. I’m basically saying before we build on any other projects, including Tri-County Tech, we’ve got to deal with the jail.”

Smith’s amendment to the proposed budget passed unanimously. The budget then passed on second reading. It requires third reading before it can take effect.

“That is going to be the biggest decision coming before a future council,” Smith said of the jail.


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