New jail on deck for county

Bob Shiles Staff writer

September 8, 2013

LUMBERTON — The Robeson County commissioners will have to decide how to pay for construction of a new county jail, a facility that is expected to cost between $30 million and $40 million.

Although the state has not established a deadline for a new jail, overcrowding and difficulty for the 21-year-old facility to meet existing jail standards have resulted in the state putting a 420-inmate cap on the number of inmates who can be housed in the facility.

Funding the project will be a challenge, County Manager Ricky Harris said, because the county has “no extra money” to take on such an expensive venture.

“Two options that will have to be considered are an increase in sales tax or property taxes,” said Harris while emphasizing that decision will be left to the commissioners, not administrators.

If funded by an increase in property taxes, the increase could be as high as a nickel, he said. If the commissioners decide to go the sales tax route, the county would have to request approval from the state General Assembly.

The last sales tax increase in Robeson County was a quarter of a cent in 2010, according to Harris, who said the increase has resulted in an annual revenue increase of about $1.5 million.

The county’s tax rate of 77 cents per $100 worth of property is in the top 20 highest in the state.

The county has hired Balfour Beatty Construction and Metcon Inc. as construction manager, and a needs and price assessment for the facility has begun.

“We’ve been talking the last four or five years about what to do with the jail,” Sheriff Kenneth Sealey said. “I would love to say that we won’t need more beds at the jail in 10 years, but I’m afraid I can’t say that with the way things in the nation are going.”

Maj. George Kenworthy, the jail’s administrator, said the commissioners are working “diligently” to come up with a plan for a jail that will serve the county’s needs and be economical.

“They are looking at different variables,” he said. ‘They want to be good stewards of the taxpayers’ money.”

Kenworthy wants a no-frills jail that is affordable, secure, and provides safety for the public.

“I’m not interested in things being added to the facility that are not needed for our mission,” he said.

According to Kenworthy, the current facility cannot be expanded.

“The current jail is not sustainable for the population now nor in the future,” Kenworthy said. “‘There isn’t anything that could be added on. It’s a poor design and it was poorly constructed. It’s run its life.”

Harris said that the existing jail, which opened in March 1992, was built with a modular brick system that was inexpensive. At the time, the belief was that it could be expanded.

“That’s how it was sold to the county, ” Harris said. “But the system that was approved by the state earlier, was no longer on state specifications (for jail construction) when the jail opened.”

The only current county commissioner on the board when the jail opened is Noah Woods. Woods was unavailable last week to comment.

The county is currently maintaining the 420-inmate cap — averaging about 380 inmates a day — by sending some inmates to jails in other counties at an average cost of $40 per day. Kenworthy estimates there are between 15 and 25 Robeson inmates being housed in other jails at any one time.

Kenworthy and Sealey commended county officials, including the county’s Jail Committee — whose members include representatives of the court system and law enforcement, as well as elected officials and administrators — for being “proactive” rather than “reactive” in addressing jail needs.

“Everyone seems to be on the same page,” Sealey said. “We’re all trying to get the job done.”

No specific design for the jail has emerged, but Sealey said that the new facility should at least be able to house 600 to 650 inmates. It should also be designed so that expansion is easy, the sheriff said.

Commissioner David Edge, chairman of the Jail Committee, said that he had hoped that the county could find a way not to have to build an expensive new jail. He said that after gathering information, he concluded that an expansion won’t happen.

“I’m not happy at all,” Edge said. “From the beginning I made it known that I wanted to see if we could get by without building a new jail.”

Edge said his research has revealed that the project could cost the county in excess of $40 million.

“Whatever we do we want to build a jail that has the potential not to be obsolete in 25 years,” Edge said.

Sealey said that he would like to see the new jail operating within two or three yeas, a timeframe Kenworthy indicated is possible.

“Typically after you get the design completed it takes about 24 months, weather permitting, to go from groundbreaking to completion,” Kenworthy said.