“We’re gonna build a jail, we’re gonna take this forward because it’s necessary and it’s the right thing to do,” said Commissioner Bobby Haun just before the Hamblen County Commission passed a measure 9-5 Thursday night to enter into contract negotiations with Blaine Construction Corporation to build the Hamblen County justice center/jail project for the low bid of $92,208,500.
Commissioners Chris Cutshaw, Randy DeBord, Tim Goins, Bobby Haun, Tim Horner, Joe Huntsman, Eileen Arnwine, Howard Shipley and Jim Stepp voted yes on the motion to approve contract negotiations.
Commissioners Jeff Akard, Thomas Doty, Mike Reed, Wayne NeSmith and Taylor Ward voted no on the motion to approve.
A representative from Blaine Construction Corporation, which is based out of Knoxville, described the current construction supply situation as “unprecedented” and said steel prices, one of the primary cost factors in the jail project, was up 111% year over year.
Bryan Payne, a project manager with Moseley Architects, said the bid from Blaine came in higher than the low bid for the project last April by $4.3 million.
“That is about a 5% overall increase from the April receipt of bids to the October receipt of bids,” he said.
A new jail has been a priority for outgoing Sheriff Esco Jarnigan, who has described the current jail as a dungeon, since approaching the County Commission in his first year in office in 2006.
The current jail has been de-certified since 2010 and the inadequate facility has resulted in poor housing conditions, federal lawsuits and safety issues.
The new design has been inspected and approved by the Tennessee Corrections Institute and the Tennessee State Fire Marshall’s office.
Hamblen County Commission Chairman Howard Shipley said the commission had worked hard to provide due diligence by visiting many regional jails, commissioning studies and more.
“We have spent hours and hours in this process (of planning for a new jail),” he said. “TCI has been involved in this process from day one. They are responsible for state and federal regulations in the jail and we have had them involved in planning process- and they have been very supportive, very involved. TCI has to approve it, the fire inspector has to approve it, the city inspector has to approve it- there are a lot of inspectors involved.”
The project will be funded by using American Rescue Plan funds issuing bonds that will cover the cost of the now complete Morristown-Hamblen West High School renovation, the recently approved building project for a new Lincoln Heights Elementary School campus and the new justice center.
The financing of the projects will not require a tax increase, it will use most of the county’s debt capacity.
“These three projects will consume our debt capacity, our ability to pay for more debt until 2034,” said Brittain.
He said that, despite using most of the county’s current debt capacity, the plan was the right move for Hamblen County and left the county government in a better position than past capital building maneuvers.
“Honestly, this is a good, long-range plan to build an asset that will serve the county for 40 to 50 years and will take the county 25 to 30 years to pay for it.”
The budget for all three projects totals $140.8 million, and the funds available for the projects total $140.9 million dollars leaving $109,446 in capacity remaining.
Brittain said the county’s estimates have been intentionally conservative in its outlooks on interest rates, so he’s hoping lower interest rates will save more money than current projections.
The larger jail will need a larger staff, so a revenue increase or budget cuts will likely be needed to fund more jail employees, barring unforeseen increase in revenue.
Commissioner Thomas Doty said the cost was too high to justify voting for the project.
“Dr. Perry has already told us they’re going to be coming back for money to renovate the Lincoln Middle School building,” he said. “We’ll have nothing to give, not without a revenue increase. I personally think it’s too much.”
Even with the bids coming in higher, the commissioners who voted for the justice center/jail project said that delaying any longer would only cost the county more, in the long run.
Commissioner Chris Cutshaw said the commission had discussed all of the elements of the proposed design for three years.
“This is not an easy decision; it’s never been an easy decision,” he said. “But this decision has come to us and it is what it is. I hate that it costs that. I find it unfortunate, but I think we’ve got to push forward.”
Commissioner Tim Horner said that many of the current County Commission feels like they have a mandate to take care of the longstanding problem.
“The majority of the commissioners, when we ran (in the last election), we were asked the three main issues facing Hamblen County and it was schools, the opioid crisis and the justice center,” he said. “We’ve moved on the schools, we’ve move on the opioid lawsuit and we’ve moved on the jail tonight. I feel proud that we’ve stepped forward. Nobody’s happy about its cost, but it’s just going to go up.”
Opponents of the jail have objected to increasing cost estimates caused by delay and have been vocal in their efforts to continue to get the project delayed or cancelled in favor of a less expensive designs with a smaller scope.
Haun said some of the opponents of the jail had been unfair and uncivil in their approach and addressed them directly in the courthouse.
“So when you talk about this (alternative proposal) one-level jail… I know you push it (and) you say we haven’t done our research- just this group of commissioners has been researching this for 3 years,” he said. “And we’ll continue to research it and continue to look at ways to effectively pay for this, to effectively run this… …We’re doing the best we can. We research, we look at things, we go to meetings, and we travel.
“I’ve listened to you guys call us every name in the world,” he said. “We’ve been threatened with our Christian salvation over this jail … We’ve got to push forward and do this for the county. That’s incumbent upon us, that’s what we were elected to do. You want to vote us out of office next time? Get your person, run against us, get your votes. That’s fine. I’ll go home and play with my grandkids.”
Haun said the “whole country is divided” and the room was divided over the jail issue.
“The pettiness has to stop,” he said.
Later on in the session, after the “yes” vote for the jail project, some of the opponents of the project were not permitted to violate commission rules, resulting in them shouting out in protest and leaving the room.