Jail plans to proceed despite tense discussion

Published 6:42 pm Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The mood became heavy and voting split at the Jessamine County Fiscal Court meeting Tuesday when the $266,295.69 bill from Lexington architectural firm CMW for renovation and expansion plans to the Jessamine County Detention Center was reached on the agenda. 

The court had approved the plans for the renovation project at a prior meeting. Three payment options for those plans were offered, and the decision on which plan to choose led to hard talks about the county’s biggest decision in many years in the face of funding uncertainty.

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“We have a structural deficit, as you all know,” said Terry Meckstroth, magistrate for District 3. “I’m not comfortable going forward with the project.” Meckstroth said that he would like to first see numbers on the cost of shipping out the excess prisoners and keeping the jail in its current form. 

Meckstroth made the motion to attain updated figures, putting the renovation project on hold without cancellation. 

“My biggest fear in postponing this is that we’re not just pushing it back a month, but we’re talking about another year plus,” Justin Ray, magistrate for the first district said. 

“I agree with Terry with the whole cost process, but when we all spoke to Jon [Sallee, Jessamine County Jailer], the cost of shipping them out is far more expensive than it is to proceed forward with something,” said April Rose Prather, magistrate for District 4.

The discussion then turned to the option of holding off on plans to expand and simply looking into renovating the elements that need renovating. District 2 Magistrate Tim Vaughan said that he thought having updated numbers on both the renovations and expansion would help move the court closer to being unified on the decision going forward. Judge Executive David West said that the renovation plans for the jail were built into the expansion plans, and were intended to be the final phase after the new construction expanding the size.

West asked if the cost of renovation alone had been included in the prepared study by CMW. He was told that a potential renovation was studied a few years ago, but the decision was made to both renovate and expand, so the engineering company would have to go back and review the numbers. The current drawing supplied would be irrelevant in that case as they included the space expansion.

It was pointed out that the court would need to update the Department of Corrections if they wanted to change the current plan of both expansion and renovation. County Attorney Brian Goettl said that this could potentially lead to the agency rescinding approval of expansion, and prisoners could start being taken out.

“From a state prosecution standpoint, this jail is ten years overdue,” Goettl told the court. “We have been doing everything possible to try to keep our numbers down, and the judge has been very accommodating. But I think they are going to soon lose patience, and I would think if you don’t do this expansion, in five years I will not plan on jailing people who have been convicted of misdemeanor crimes. We won’t have room for that, and we might as well put everyone on home incarceration.”

Goettl said that the jail is “bursting at the seams”, and renovations alone will not stop the problem.

It was also brought to the court’s attention that the stormwater draining issue at the courthouse has not been addressed, nor has the financial means to correct the problem. West replied that a cost estimate of $500,000 had been received.

The motion to postpone expansion and renovation was met with a 3-3 vote from the magistrates. Judge West cast the deciding vote to proceed.

“I believe Magistrate Meckstroth to be 100 percent correct that we have a structural deficit,” Judge West said. “I want the court to be 100 percent clear that we have to answer the question of how we are going to correct that structural deficit before we move on to the completion of this project. I think we have done great work to bring us forward, but there is still much to do. I’m gonna trust in this court to do that work.”

Next, the court discussed which payment plan to choose. The first plan paid the bill in its entirety and expedited the drawing of the plans. The second plan allowed for payment over a two-month period and the third plan for three months respectively. 

“I would be most comfortable with three months,” Vaughan said. “It would have a little less financial shock spreading it over three months, so that would be my preference.” Vaughan then made the motion to pay the bill over three months, but it died due to lack of a second.

The motion was then made to pay the bill for CMW’s professional services in its entirety accessing BAN (Bond Anticipation Note) funds if need be. West said that the most important part of the equation was that the structural deficit would have to be improved.

“Judge, how are we going to do that?” Magistrate Meckstroth asked. West answered that to lower a structural deficit, “you raise revenue or you lower expenses.” Due to substantial budget cuts and consolidations, he said it was going to take some action to raise funds.

When Meckstroth asked what would happen if the funds could not be raised, West said that the county would have “a nice set of drawings,” and would have to pay a higher bond rating or not bring the project to bid depending on the decision of the court.

“Judge, as I mentioned in my motion, we have a revenue shortfall, and I don’t know how we are going to correct it, to be honest with you,” Meckstroth said.

“I think that is well said,” West replied. 

Gary Morgan, magistrate for District 6 and Judge West pointed out that the jail project was the biggest project the county had ever taken on excluding education projects. Vaughan replied that if the county were to take on the biggest project it ever had, it should first review all options.

The motion was again split with a 3-3 vote among magistrates, with Judge West making the deciding vote in favor of the first option.

“With a lot of faith in the court to fix our problems, yes,” West said. “Reluctantly.”

Drawings should be completed by CMW in the next 4-5 weeks.