2011-10-12 / Front Page

Jail saga: Is the end near?

Three options on the table

After eight years of discussion and failed attempts to resolve on-going jail problems, which one of the latest solutions will the Sanilac County Commissioners select?

At next week’s finance committee meeting, the commissioners will again discuss which, if any, of three jail options they will approve: A) A new two-story addition and retro-fit of the jail, for which the county has been already approved for a $5 million federal loan but may need another $3 million; B) convert the large dormitory-style cell to smaller cells and address security issues for upwards of $3 million; C) reduce inmate population in dormitory cell and address security for $250,000.

“One thing we all agreed on was doing nothing is not an option we wanted to present,” emphasized Jail Advisory Committee member and County Treasurer Kathy Dorman.

“In my opinion we need to move forward with this, we’ve got other things to address,” stated Jim Bowerman, chairman of the board of commissioners.

“We’ve got more challenges coming and I don’t see the state sending more money. We do have to keep the revenue coming,” said Commissioner Donald Hunt.

Some of the commissioners are not comfortable with an $8 million retrofit and addition project.

“I don’t know if I’m in a mood to go and ask for another $3 million...If we ask for $8 million and go through the whole process and the bids come in more...There is no guarantee that will not happen,” said Commissioner John Merriman.

“The real risk to the taxpayers is if we have to make up a half million. How would that affect the rest of the (county) departments? There will be less risk to the taxpayer if we reduce the term (of the loan),” said Commissioner Judy VanSickle.

“I stand behind option A...I am not against $8 million, I am against $8 million over 40 years. I do believe we will reduce it as soon as we can.” stated Sheriff Garry Biniecki.

The county will have other funds they could apply to the loan within a few years. The health department building bonds will be paid off in January 2014, and the annual payment is about $128,000. The current jail bond is about $110,000 per year, and will be paid off in September 2017.

County Administrator John Males also presented the board with projections that allow the county to pay off the debt for the first plan in 15 years. However his figures used a total of $7 million because he has been told construction costs have leveled off since they came in too high last year.

“In my mind this is the least risk, the best value to the taxpayers with a selfliquidating pay off,” stated Males.

VanSickle stated she cannot support the $8 million project without a resolution indicating their intention to pay the debt off as early as possible, even though this board cannot force future commissioners to do the same thing.

“The... question I hear is what alternative do we have should that money (federal bed rental) dry up,” said the sheriff. “We have held that revenue up time and time again, we have raised that bar (amount charged to the U.S. Marshals Service to house prisoners).”

Since the first jail plan was proposed eight years ago, the idea has been pay off any loans with federal bed rental income.

Local citizens weighed in with their opinions at the recent jail meeting.

“We need to bring this to a head. I think we should look at $8 million,” stated Marlette Supervisor Kirk Dale, who was a member of a countywide committee that recommended a new jail eight years ago.

“I’ve watched...this group dither on this and cost this county a lot of money. Does anybody think prices are going down” said Al Mach of Delaware Township.

“I am suspicious of the timing...Every time it (jail issue) went to the public you know what happened,” stated Bryan Brown of Hemans.

The jail committee recommended the commissioners consider the following:

A. Build a two story addition and retrofit the 52-bed dormitory cell into one-person high security/special needs cells and a minimum security dorm style cell. There would be a total of 165 beds, compared to 119 now.

This addresses all health and safety issues, and National Institute of Corrections concerns regarding maximum security and the American Disability Act requirements, with costs estimated at $7.5 to $8 million. The county has obtained a $5 million low interest Rural Development loan, and probably could get more, but has other options for the additional money. It could be paid off early with revenue from renting beds to federal marshal prisoners.

B. Retro-fit the large dormitory cell, upgrade the booking area and address $250,000 in security needs at a rough estimate of $2.5 to $3 million out of the $5 million loan because no one has quoted the renovations separately. It reduces bed capacity to 93, and the county’s general fund would take an approximately $1.44 million hit between construction and lost bed rental revenue.

C. Cut the number of inmates placed in the dormitory cell and take care of the $250,000 in security needs. However, that would not address the maximum security and disability issues. The number of beds would reduce to 99. There would not be any revenue coming in to pay for it, plus annual revenue would be cut by $651,200.

Dorman said there is no grant funding available and they can’t use the County Revolving Loan Fund to pay for a costly jail project, because the state is regionalizing these funds. They can’t take any money from the Environmental Trust Fund because there is already less tipping fee revenue coming in than budgeted expenditures. In addition the county’s reserve service fund was already used to pay for the architect’s fees for the proposed jail addition, and has only a $100,000 balance.

Dorman said Rural Development won’t let them build just part of a project, they would have to complete it. She said the committee could not come up with a project that would address jail needs and generate enough revenue to fund it with the $5 million that is available.

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