Push for new county jail on pause

First Posted: 11/15/2013

LUMBERTON — When Robeson County Commissioner David Edge volunteered to be chairman of the county’s Jail Committee, he wanted the assignment to position himself to stop the the construction of a new county jail. But after studying the issue for a couple years, his position has changed — somewhat.

“I see a lot of reasons we need to build a new jail, but I’m still not convinced that we have to build one,” Edge said. “I’m continually looking at reasons why we have to build a new jail, the costs associated with building a jail, and the total savings associated with a more efficient jail.”

The push to get a jail constructed has slowed, but Edge said that he and other commissioners and members of the Jail Committee are continuing to look at all options before “closing the door” on any ideas for improving jail conditions without building a new facility. But the committee, which includes representatives of the court system and law enforcement, has not met in about eight months, according to Edge. It had been meeting every two months.

The commissioners will eventually have to decide if a new jail should be constructed, and if so, how much it would cost. Edge said a preliminary design by Mosley Architects of Charlotte comes in at $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. Sheriff Kenneth Sealey has said a new facility should be able to accommodate 600 to 650 inmates.

Edge said he has visited three jails, in Harnett, Scotland and Sampson counties.

“The current jail has no flow to it. It’s just a cluttered mess,” Edge said. “Everything and everyone is on top of each other.”

According to Edge, expansion of the existing jail is not an option. He said the cost is prohibitive and the final product would not be cost-efficient.

Sheriff’s Maj. George Kenworthy, the jail’s administrator, on Thursday commended the county commissioners for moving cautiously.

“I think the commissioners are trying to be methodical and take in all variables before they make a decision,” he said.

Kenworthy earlier this year said that he 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.

Edge said that his goal is to ensure that if a new jail is constructed, it is built in such a way that make it possible for the facility to recoup some of the costs of building it.

“There are some things that can be added to a jail that can make it more efficient utility-wise, labor-wise and secure,” Edge said. “A lot of things can be implemented to reduce the cost of such things as transportation, utilities and maintenance.”

Although Edge contends that the county is financially “very stable,” he said finding the money to construct a new jail would be a challenge. He said that the commissioners would probably ask the state General Assembly to approve a 1-cent sales tax for the project.

The last sales tax increase in Robeson County was a quarter of a cent in 2010, which has raised about $1.5 million a year.

According to Edge, the commissioners are unlikely to approve a hike in the county’s property tax rate to pay for a jail. The county’s tax rate of 77 cents per $100 worth of property is among the highest in the state.

“If money was no issue, I would say just go ahead and build a jail. But my taxes, and everyone else’s taxes, need to be considered,” Edge said. “Cost versus benefits need to be considered.”

Sheriff Sealey said earlier this year that he would like to see a new jail operating within two or three years. In most cases, once a jail design is completed, it takes about two years from groundbreaking to completion.