County council sets aside $23M for future jail

By: Jason Evans

Staff Reporter

Earmark means money will be available when needed

PICKENS COUNTY — County officials agree that a solution is needed for a jail that is bursting at the seams.

And while what that solution will entail is still taking shape, Pickens County Council members want to make sure that funding is there.

Council members voted unanimously to amend the fiscal year 2016-2017 budget to earmark $23 million for a new jail.

They were quick to assert, however, that they had not approved building a new jail with the vote.

The discussion came before council voted on third reading to approve the budget.

Council members had recently received an assessment regarding a possible new jail, councilman Neil Smith said.

“It’s a $23 million project,” Smith said.

Interim county administrator Tom Hendricks said the 322-bed facility described in the assessment would more than triple the current capacity for inmates.

Smith moved to amend the budget to designate $23 million from reserves for jail construction.

Councilman Trey Whitehurst spoke up to clear up any confusion.

“We’re basically earmarking it,” Whitehurst said. “We are earmarking the money. We are not spending the money. We are basically saying this money cannot be spent on something else until we address the jail. If it’s going to be spent, it’s going to be spent on the jail. I’m reading the headlines tomorrow that county council approved a jail.”

Smith agreed.

“We’ve got several major things,” he said. “We’ve got coal ash issues, we’ve got jail, we’ve got land acquisitions for our expansions of these companies. Then we’ve got Tri-County Tech. What we’ve been discussing is where we have our top priorities.

The jail is our responsibility,” Smith continued. “There’s nothing we can do about it. That’s just the way it is.”

He said $23 million “is a pretty hefty hit.”

“I’m just saying, making sure we hold that money for the jail,” Smith said. “It’s coming. It’s just a matter of time.”

Council chair Jennifer Willis clarified, saying that council will be able to determine the best way to fund a new jail when that time comes.

“Whether we actually use the reserves, whether we bond part of it,” she said. “That can all be finalized. The main thing is that we’re setting aside this money. We will have the ability to dial that in as we go forward on that project.”

Councilman Tom Ponder said while Pickens County does have a role to play, other agencies will be key players in the creation of a new jail facility — whenever that happens.

“Our responsibility would be the financial responsibility,” he said. “But agencies like our solicitor’s office, probation and parole, different organizations, they’ve got a role to play in how this facility will be run. As we go through the process of deciding what type of facility it will be, they can clean some things up that will cut down on some of the days that some of these people stay there.”

Ponder said a lot of people don’t enter pleas after they’re arrested, clogging the system.

“A lot of people make deals with the solicitor’s office, plead guilty to lesser charges and get time served,” he said. ‘We’ve got some people down there today who are there because they choose to be.”

The budget passed unanimously on third reading.