County calls for jail bond election (updated)

Robin Fornoff

Curry County commissioners started the new year Tuesday electing Wendell Bostwick as their new chairman and approving a special election for a $9.3 million bond issue to expand and improve the troubled jail.

Bostwick replaces former chairman Caleb Chandler.

The April 3 election was approved on a unanimous vote, despite Bostwick’s misgivings over having no specific plan for improvements at the jail. Commissioners have heard proposals for jail improvements but not settled on any one plan.

Bond consultant Kevin Powers said the bond issue would allow the county to pay off old Event Center bonds early and still generate $9.3 million for jail improvements, probably at a much lower interest rate. Powers said bond rates are historic lows and commissioners needed to “act sooner rather than later” if they wanted to take advantage of the window.

Powers said bonded debts for the Events Center are having to be paid off at 4 percent interest. If the bond issue is approved by voters, Powers said rates will likely by about half; somewhere in the high 2 percent range.

It would also generate the new cash for the jail without increasing taxes, Powers said.

The new bond issue would be an extension by 20 years of an existing tax.

Chandler and Commissioners Dan Stoddard and Frank Blackburn all called fixing the jail the county’s top priority. All said issues of security at the courthouse and renovating the old post office building for county offices could be addressed later.

The jail has been plagued by multiple problems in recent years, including escapes, attempted escapes, mistaken releases and inmates failing to return from medical furloughs.

Bostwick noted voters only recently and roundly rejected a $33 million bond issue in 2010 designed to build a new courthouse and jail. He said he wanted time to put together a solid plan while educating voters on the need for the money to fix the jail.

“We really don’t know what the $9.3 million will build,” said Bostwick. “The worst thing we can do is go out and have this defeated again.”

Powers, however, said it was likely bond rates would increase if commissioners waited to develop plans, putting any special election later into the summer.

“I’m ready to go,” said Blackburn, who offered the motion eventually approved. “I think we need to proceed immediately.”

The vote was unanimous for the bond issue.