Commissioners tout new jail plan

Robin Fornoff

The $9.3 million Curry County Commissioners say they need to expand and renovate the jail covers only the cost of the building, not furnishings or additional staff that may be needed.

Commission Chairman Wendell Bostwick acknowledged as much Tuesday during a sparsely attended public forum designed to answer questions about the project.

Bostwick, however, pointed out the county would be saving almost $770,000 a year it has been paying to house inmates at facilities outside the county.

“I do feel,” Bostwick told the 12 people attending the session, “that $770,000 will be more than enough to staff and we’ll have money left over.”

Bostwick also said the county had reserve funds for land purchases needed to expand the jail and he expects increases from gross receipts taxes as the economy revives will also be available for staffing and furnishing the jail.

Voters are being asked to approve the $9.3 million bond in a special April 3 election.

Bostwick and new jail Administrator Gerry Billy repeatedly stressed the new plan to fix the troubled jail won’t mean a tax increase. It will mean paying off an existing tax for a bond used to finance the Events Center, then refinancing to extend that tax another 20 years.

Voters overwhelmingly rejected bond issues totaling $33 million last year that would have been used to build a new jail and courthouse. Those proposals would have increased property taxes.

Bostwick and Commissioner Bobby Sandoval, the only two commissioners attending the meeting, said they agreed with the voter rejection of the last plan.

Bostwick said the new plan “is a far better one” that will ensure community safety and a superior jail that will last for many years.

The county’s bond consultant, Kevin 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.

To a specific question about whether staff needed to be increased by expanding the jail, Billy said yes, but he wasn’t able to come up with a specific number.

“I’m guess-timating … maybe nine to 12 people at the top end,” said Billy, who served 24 years as a sheriff in Ohio prior to accepting the jail job in Curry County.

Billy endorsed the jail plan, particularly the 60-bed expansion that will be linked to the north side of the existing facility. Dubbed the Special Housing Unit (SHU), Billy said it will allow jail staff to segregate inmates with special needs and by behavior.

“Right now,” Billy said, “essentially we’re looking to fill a bed.”

Billy said the new two-story addition would allow separation of patients with mental illness, drug dependency, gang affiliations, aggressive or combative behavior or those who are escape risks. The SHU, Billy said, would end a “one size fits all” situation that troubles the jail operation now.

Sandoval noted the jail now has eight isolation cells.

“They’re supposed to be there for the really bad guys,” Sandoval said. “But the only thing we can do with mental inmates now is put them in an isolation cell. Because that’s the only thing we’ve got.”

Billy said not being able to segregate inmates now puts additional and unnecessary stress on jail staff.

“I’m particularly concerned with staff retention,” Billy said, noting when he took the job six weeks ago staff turnover almost exceeded inmate turnover. He said the Ohio jail he ran had 94 percent staff retention rate and he wants that to happen in Curry County.

“I don’t want our agency to be a stepping stone for someone else,” Billy said.

One person attending the meeting noted the $9.3 million bond issue doesn’t address security concerns at the courthouse. Bostwick said commissioners are aware there are other issues.

“But when I think about it,” said Bostwick, “the one that floats to the top is always the jail.”

Bostwick said the jail was the top priority and commissioners would address issues such as the courthouse when a plan such as the expansion of the jail moves forward.

Bostwick said construction of the jail should be finished within two years after bids are awarded. Commissioners have scheduled three other public forums on the issue:

• Thursday — 11:30 a.m. at the Melrose Senior Center, 427 Main St. in Melrose. Also, 6 p.m. at the Texico Senior Center, 211 Griffin St., in Texico.

• March 28 — 11:30 a.m. at Grady Senior Center, 104 W. Main St., Grady.