By David Howell
WATER VALLEY – Supervisors continued to wrestle with a decision of whether or not to move forward with the construction of a new jail in Yalobusha County during a heated session.
The topic surfaced in Monday’s recessed meeting in Water Valley, following a presentation last month by Sheriff Lance Humphreys, outlining the costs and design of a a new county jail that would house 25 joint-state working inmates and 56 county and pre-trial inmates.
Humphreys also provided a cost analysis of the construction and operation of the new facility, which included the operating budget for the $2.5 million facility. Humphreys told supervisors that if the county could pay a million dollars from the county’s reserve fund up front, the remaining $1.5 million construction cost and increased operating expense could be offset from revenue generated from housing 25 state inmates at the new facility.
The issue was briefly discussed during the August 3 meeting, with county officials agreeing to revisit the issue on Monday, August 17.
If and when to replace the current 1964 model 24-person jail has been a familiar topic, with the first discussion surfacing in late 2007 after Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps attended a county meeting to discuss the possibility of the county landing a regional jail. The state has a number of regional jails in operation, Epps told supervisors during that 2007 meeting, and his department was working to build more of these facilities.
Following Epps’ visit, county officials pledged to pursue this opportunity, hiring Irb Benjamin, a jail consultant, to work on the project.
Benjamin’s primary focus was to lobby state legislators to pass a bill, or bills, authorizing the facility and appropriate funding for it. Yalobusha was competing with more than a dozen counties state-wide who also were looking at the regional jail concept as a way to funnel state tax dollars to offset the expense of a facility that would house county prisoners in addition to the state prisoners.
The issue became a hot political topic, during both the 2008 and 2009 legislative session. Each year a number of bills in the Senate and House authorizing regional jails did not survive the lengthy legislative process.
This option is now a long-shot, according to Humphreys, who told supervisors in July that a number of state legislators reported that state funding shortfalls have derailed the construction of future regional jails in the state.
Court Ordered Deadline
During the hunt for a regional jail, supervisors felt more pressure after a federal court order was handed down requiring the county to show “good faith” on constructing a new jail by September 1 or jeopardize the housing of state inmates in the county’s facility.
The court order was handed by U.S. Magistrate Judge Jerry Davis following an inspection by state prisioner’s attorney, Ron Welch.
Welch represents Mississippi prisoners in a variety of class action federal court cases concerning conditions of confinement. He inspected the 40-plus year-old Yalobusha Jail last September and compared the antiquated facility to a dungeon.
Humphreys has also repeatedly told supervisors that the 24-person jail stays at capacity most of the time, including the day last September when Welch visited.
Monday’s Talking Points
Monday’s discussion was two-fold, as supervisors discussed the possibility of moving forward with the construction of a new jail and how to handle the Sept. 1 deadline imposed in the federal court order. Also attending the meeting were company officials with Southern Composite Systems Inc., who have worked with Humphreys on preliminary plans for the facility.
At the heart of Monday’s discussion were a number of issues and differing opinions about building the new facility including:
• Making sure the facility could be constructed within the $2.5 million budget and how to proceed with the financing;
• Working out details of a contract with the Mississippi Department of Corrections that would guarantee the county 25 state inmates for 20 years;
• Determining if a public hearing should be held to weigh the public’s opinion on the project; and
• Deciding if the county even needed a new jail.
The Nitty Gritty
“We would like to assure you that we would like to build this facility and we can work out a plan where it could be leased,” Southern Composite company official David Deaton told supervisors as Monday’s conversation got underway.
“One question, y’all have a bank that has guaranteed us five percent interest on the lease, is that something we can take to our local banks and see if they can beat that?” Supervisor Tommy Vaughn asked.
“Sure,” Deaton answered, adding that the lease program is just an option.
“If I understand it right, the proposal you made was to have your own architect to do your own building and do your own financing… Everything would be done with one contract?” Surrette asked.
“If this facility is built with our plan, our dome jail, we would need you to engage our architect. Once the plan is approved by your board and Sheriff Humphreys, then it would be put out to bid,” Deaton answered.
“Let me see if I understand this,” Board Attorney John Crow asked. “Your company builds this particular type of structure. You’re basically going to be selling the product to the contractor” Crow asked.
“That is correct,” Deaton answered.
“It is imperative that we stay in that two-and-a-half-million-dollar bottom line,” Vaughn told the company officials, making sure the $2.5 million price tag included the total project, including paying the architect recommended for the project, Ferguson and Associates.
“Based on what we presented, we can do this for the two and half million dollars,” Deaton explained. “I am not sure just exactly what the figure will be, it may be something under that,” Deaton added, “But we can do it in that ballpark.”
“Since we have an existing building to house the sheriff’s department, that is going to save us money,” Vaughn added, referring to the building donated by Carothers Construction which has already been defined as the new location for the department. Supervisors have also identified adjacent acreage, also donated by Sean Carothers, as the proposed location for a new jail.
“Another thing you have now is this window of opportunity that the commissioner has offered to provide you so many state inmates and pay you so much, we don’t know how long this opportunity will be available, but it will essentially pay for your facility,” Deaton continued.
“Your step would be to vote to hire Ferguson and Associates as your architect. That would be between you and them. Once you have done this, then it would go into the design and bid process. We would simply furnish the dome structure to whichever contractor wins the bid,” Deaton explained.
“I agree with the term you used. The window of opportunity. I believe we are right at it right now. The opportunity to build this jail without costing the taxpayers. The price of building a jail is going up every year. Nobody wants to spend money on a jail. It’s not what you want, it is need that you have and we’ve got to fill it. That is what we are here for to try to take care of the people in the county,” Vaughn said.
Financing Options and Public Input
Also at the table Monday was Governmental Specialist Joe McRaney, who works for North Central Planning and Development District. McRaney regularly advises county officials on budget issues.
“Is the whole deal going to be a lease purchase?” McRaney asked, referring to the financing of the facility.
“That’s up to the board,” Deaton answered.
“If you do the lease purchase, does that go through this board?” McRaney asked. “Can the board directly do this?
“It is kind of like buying a tractor to get your lease purchase financing,” Board Attorney John Crow answered.
“When you go through the lease purchase option, do you go through the same input process, like a bond issue, where you have some set public hearings?” McRaney also inquired.
“No,” answered Vaughn and Crow.
“That would be one thing, you want to make sure everybody is on board,” McRaney responded, referring to the public’s opinion on the construction expense.
“It doesn’t affect your bonded indebtedness,” Crow answered, referring to the difference in the lease purchase and floating a bond, which could lead to a public hearing and even a referendum on borrowing the money.
“In other words you think the general public ought to have a word in this thing?” Supervisor Butch Surrette asked McRaney.
“I have been involved with lease purchases before, if it is something that is not popular or something they feel like you should have gone through the normal bid process, then they feel like they should have been involved,” McRaney answered.
“I don’t see a need for it,” Vaughn responded, referring to a public hearing. “The general public put all five of us around this table to make decisions that affect this county, to be stewards of the county’s money. I think that is what we are doing. All it does is cause controversy,” Vaughn continued.
“I agree,” Board President Amos Sims said.
“I don’t agree with that at all. The general public is the general public,” Surrette responded. “Ever how powerful we think we might get here, they (the public) are still in control. I guarantee you are going to have a referendum now about this or you are going to have a referendum in two years when you run for relection,” Surrette said, adding the he would fully support the jail if that is what the public wants and his decision would not be based on politics because he is not seeking reelection.
“It is not a matter of want, it is a matter of need,” Vaughn countered, adding that nobody wants to construct a jail.
An Airtight Contract?
Surrette questioned a contract, specifically if the Mississippi Department of Corrections would guarantee 25 inmates for 20 years, which would provide a revenue stream of $182,500 to help pay for the jail annually. This money would be added to the current $243,314 already budgeted for the jail each year.
“This contract, is it going to say we guarantee you 25 inmates for 20 years, period?” Surrette said. “Ultimately the county is going to be responsible for this payment whether we get the money from the state or not,” Surrette continued.
“These are not regional inmates that fall under legislative approval,” Humphreys answered. “These are joint state-county inmates. I can only go by what I have seen. Panola County has 40 inmates working over there for about 10 years now,” Humphreys added. “They don’t have a contract,” he added.
“We need to know exactly what they are going to do for sure,” Surrette added.
“I agree. Even if we sign a contract and the Governor stamps it himself, and next week we have something wrong in our jail MDOC can pull them if you are under a contract or not. They are going to supply as many inmates as you want to work as long as your facility meets Mr. Ron Welch’s requirements,” Humphreys countered.
“I think when we start doing business with the taxpayers money, we need to do business in the right way and that’s all I am going to say,” Surrette continued.
“Butch, you are talking about going back to the public with this. Certainly it would be nice to have everybody’s opinion in the county, especially when you are redoing the courthouses and increasing the millage rates, taxing people to death, maybe so,” Vaughn responded, referring to having a public hearing. “This right here is not increasing taxes. Not one way whatsoever. I think if you look at the record of this board for the last six years, we have held taxes in check. No board in the last 25 years has come close to it. I think we are about the best stewards of the county’s money that anybody can possibly have. If they want to vote me out for saving taxes, I am ready for it. If they want to vote me in for making a decision, I’ll make a decision and it will be in the best interest of Yalobusha County when I do it,” Vaughn countered.
“I’m still going to say we need to have the general public’s input. I don’t see how you can argue against it… If they don’t want it, I don’t want it. If they want it, I want it,” Surrette responded.
“It’s not a question of wanting it. Want doesn’t have anything to do with it.,” Vaughn responded. ‘It’s a need, Butch. If we don’t address it we are going to be in the same shape we were with the courthouses and two years from now we will have a general obligation bond and taxes are going higher,” Vaughn added.
“If you don’t address it, all you are going to do is lose one state inmate prisoner down there right now and three more that you are keeping down there right now,” Surrette continued, referring to the September deadline imposed by Welch that could result in the loss of the state inmates.
“No, that jail is completely full and having to let them out on the streets because there is no room to put them, now that is a problem,” Vaughn answered.
“All this is, we are trying to correct something to have state prisoners,” Surrette continued.
“No, we got a jail that is 46 years old and is running over at the seams. I could care less about Ron Welch,” Vaughn responded, as the discussion continued back and forth with Surrette and Vaughn on opposite sides.
“Are we done?” Sims asked during a lull in the discussion.
“We haven’t decided nothing yet,” Vaughn answered.
“Well I’ve only got one question. I need to know what to tell Mr. Welch. September 1, he will be here to get my state inmates,” Humphreys asked, steering the topic back to the deadline and a $3,000 bill owed to Welch as part of the annual inspection process.
“I am going to have to get some type of agreement with another jail to house my state inmates,” Humphreys said, adding he had a Circuit Court session coming up mean several additional state inmates would need to be housed by the county as they await trial.
Supervisors ultimately voted 5 – 0 to pay Welch’s bill and instructed Crow to contact Welch and see if the September 1 deadline could be extended to allow the county to continue housing state inmates while a final decision is made regarding what to do with the jail.
The topic will also be put on the agenda at the board’s next meeting, scheduled September 8, with Humphreys agreeing to obtain clarification from Epps regarding the details of a long-term contract for housing the 25 joint-state inmates.