Modular jail units behind schedule

By Abby Morris-Frye
star staff

  Members of the Jail Task Force committee of the Carter County Commission heard on Thursday an update on the installation of modular jail units to expand housing at the facility. The committee also received information on a private settlement agreement involving a federal class-action lawsuit that cites conditions at the jail.
  Members of the group heard from Joey White, a representative from Reedy & Sykes engineering firm handling site preparation work for installing the modular units. "We're a little bit behind," White said. "They are already pouring footers that are not interrupted by the fire protection."
  According to White, construction crews were on site Thursday pouring some of the concrete footers which will hold the five new modular jail units.
  "One of the holdups we've been experiencing has been fire protection," White said, explaining that construction crews were having to work around the current fire protection that services the existing jail without disrupting it. Crews will have to build a new fire protection system to service the current jail and the new units before disconnecting the existing system.
  White said an approximate one-week delay on the site preparation work should not affect delivery and set up of the modular units. According to County Finance Director Jason Cody, the first three modular units are expected to arrive around Thanksgiving with the final two arriving around Christmas.
  Members of the Task Force also discussed the parking problem that resulted when 20 parking spaces -- 18 regular and two handicapped -- were eliminated from the north side of the Justice Center to make room for the modular jail units.
  According to County Mayor Dale Fair, plans are in the works to pave a section of the county's property adjacent to one of the existing parking lots and reconfigure the parking spaces to create 15 new ones, nearly replacing the spaces lost on the north side of the building.
  The Task Force also addressed land availability issues relating to a long-term solution to the overcrowding problem at the jail, which is certified by the Tennessee Corrections Institute to house 91 inmates but usually averages around the 200 mark.
  Members of the group discussed the pros and cons of staying at the existing site or moving to another one. While the current site makes it easier to escort inmates from the jail to the courtrooms, it doesn't allow much room for expansion. Though moving the jail to a new site would make room for future growth, it would make escorting inmates to and from the jail for court appearances more difficult.
  Building a new jail at the current site would require the acquisition of property adjacent to the current facility, including a portion or all of the city of Elizabethton's softball field. Fair told members of the Task Force that he would speak to city officials to see if the city would be willing to sell the land or work out a land-swapping deal.
  Once the county receives an answer, the Task Force will know if they need to consider staying at the current site or locating the jail elsewhere.
  A factor in the decision whether to keep the jail at its current location or move it will be cost. The cost to purchase parcels of land adjacent to the current facility -- which have higher property values due to the houses currently located on the lots -- may be higher than the cost to purchase an empty tract of land to accommodate the needs of jail. According to the needs assessment study done by Barge, Waggoner, Sumner and Cannon, at least six acres of land would be needed just to build a jail facility and allow for parking at the jail.
  "I'm afraid our cost to stay on the existing site may be greater than it is worth," said Bradley Johnson who, as a deputy at the Carter County Sheriff's Department, serves as a CCSD representative on the Task Force.
  Task Force member Doug Buckles said that it will probably come down to the issue of cost when it comes time to make the decision. "For certain, it's going to come down to dollars and cents," he said. "We don't want to throw money away on something that's not going to work in the long run."