Changes in the air at county courthouse, jail

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khelms@starhq.com

   While it may be a year of slow growth on the economic front, 2003 promises to bring changes to the Carter County Courthouse and the adjacent courthouse annex.
   One major change is scheduled to take place in April, according to County Executive Dale Fair, when the Carter County Commission will have to vote on a replacement for the county tax assessor.
   John Holsclaw, 61, who has held the tax assessor position for the last 27 years, announced Feb. 21 that he will be retiring at the end of March.
   Though Holsclaw could appoint his own successor, that person still must be approved by the county commission. Holsclaw's successor will serve until the next election, to be held in 2004.
   Appointing a replacement will be "a major undertaking," Fair said.
   There also could be some cosmetic changes around the old courthouse in the near future. Fair received approval in February from the county commission to work out a trade which will allow the acquisition of two houses and property adjacent to the courthouse.
   If the deal goes through, the county will pay $103,000, plus trade former Department of Transportation commercial real estate on Don M. Lewis Road.
   "That's a lot for this property," Fair said, "but it's adjacent to the courthouse, and courthouse property doesn't come up every day. And it's not cheap when it does."
   Fair said the county would have liked to purchase the entire parcel of Siler property when it was put up for auction, "but that's all we can stand at this time.
   "We were hoping it would go cheap, and we could buy a lot of it. I would have even liked to have had the main property and made a museum out of it, but I just don't want to put us in a bind. That was a want and a wish, not an actual need," he said. "There are two houses behind us -- two single-family residences that went at the sale when they sold the Siler property," Fair said.
   The county has been negotiating with the owners, who have a business beside the industrial park which they've outgrown. "We have a piece of property [there] that used to be where the Department of Transportation stored gravel. It's been sitting up there since 1997 or 1998 deteriorating," Fair said.
   If the property transfer works out, the former DOT property "will go back on the tax rolls." The new owners will repair and update it.
   The two lots which would be acquired by the county are 160 feet by 100 feet. One lot contains a brick house which is restorable. The other lot contains a white wooden house.
   "I don't see a whole lot of hope for it," Fair said. "We'd probably tear it down pretty soon for additional parking. When we have the Chancery Court here, and it's the end of the month or near the end of the month with people registering vehicles -- or like lately, paying their property taxes -- there's no parking.
   "We have a lot of employees; so our employees take up the back part of the building. They park on the road all the way down in front of the funeral home on those days, and it's not a good situation. So we can create some more parking."
   And in case the county would need another building some day, he said, "We have the property."
   County officials also will be working this year to complete maintenance projects at the county jail.
   "The jail is a work in process. This is not an overnight situation," Fair said.
   During a state inspection in December, the county was given an ultimatum to hire additional jailers, to install security cameras, and to improve jail conditions.
   "We're trying to think of steps that would keep us in compliance, but we still realize that we have got a problem to fix," Fair said, adding that the jail has been deteriorating for some time.
   "Any time you put more people in a room than it's designed for, over time it will deteriorate because of overuse. We have that situation now in our jail."
   The county has a jail task force studying the problem and trying to find options.
   "We have gone to Blount County and toured their jail. We've been through our jail twice. We have hired a maintenance person over there that's working full-time on the problem, and we've got a plan to start renovating each cellblock," Fair said. "We have hired extra jailers and we have put up video cameras in each one of the cell blocks."
   Two issues exist. One is the condition of the jail today; the other is overcrowding.
   "We're looking at several feasibility situations. One is to remodel the existing building and either add courtrooms or offices and just make the whole thing a jail; or to put the jail somewhere else and make the whole thing a courthouse; or a combination," Fair said.
   "But that's something that I wanted to make sure the Department of Correction in Nashville knew that I was going to work on -- that it was not going to sit. But it can't be done overnight," he said.
   If it is determined that the county has to build a new structure, Fair said that is something he would like to defer until the county reduces its debt. "The first one coming off is Hampton Elementary. Before we go back into more debt, if we can help it, it would be good to wait until then," he said.
   Fair said he can't worry about "what-ifs" relative to decisions made in the past about the jail. Quoting from the immortal words of Henry Ford, he said, "I'm going to be part of the solution, instead of part of the problem."