Another attempt to put a referendum on the ballot for a bond issue that would allow Hamblen County to borrow up to $85 million failed in a Jail Study Committee Monday night.
Commissioner Wayne NeSmith made the motion and Commissioner Jeff Akard seconded, but it failed on a 10-4 vote.
“The taxpayers have got a right to vote for this on a referendum,” NeSmith said.
But other commissioners disagreed, saying there was more at stake than just building a jail, it would also include much needed improvements to Morristown-Hamblen High School West.
“If this thing goes to a referendum, it means the whole lot,” Commissioner Bobby Haun said. “It puts our schools in a pinch.”
The big question for the night was whether the county would want to separate a bond issue into two separate bonds, one for the jail and another for West High School. The issue is whether the county wants to issue an initial $20 million bond with around $12 million going to West and $8 million going to fund the first phase of jail construction.
“I said this last week and I’ll say it again, these are two separate issues and I sincerely believe we need to separate them and not fund them together,” Haun said.
But county officials said that would be problematic. The bond issue only works as a line of credit and the commission approved possibly spending up to $85 million. That does not mean the county has to, or will, take out the entire amount.
County officials have said there would be four different bond issues for the money as the jail goes through phases of construction.
Chris Bessler, the county’s financial advisor with Cumberland Securities, said if the bonds were split the interest rates could mean an additional $100,000 the county would have to pay.
Commissioner Joe Huntsman said he agreed to keep the bond together. He said it would be better to just issue the bond as one entity to save on the $100,000.
“I don’t know why it’s such a big deal,” he said.
“What if it goes to referendum?” Haun asked.
“What if it doesn’t go to referendum?” Hunstman replied.
“Then it’s a moot point,” Haun responded.
The commission then voted with only NeSmith, Akard, Chris Cutshaw and Haun voting to put the $85 million on the ballot.
The Jail Study Committee had several issues to deal with Monday night in a meeting that lasted almost two hours.
Commissioners also heard from several judges on what they felt was needed for the justice center and the current space constraints felt right now by using the old courtrooms in the Courthouse and current justice center.
Several members of the crowd spoke before the start of the meeting, urging the commission to separate the two bond issues.
Macy Noe, West High School council president, said she felt that her school may be left behind if it was not split.
“I ask that you separate these two, so our bond issue wouldn’t be muddled by the jail,” she said.
One resident said she felt the future of the children and the jail should not be lumped together.
“I’m sure no one would have an issue with you fixing West High School,” she said.
Questions were raised on why the county would need a tax increase. County Mayor Bill Brittain said last week in a meeting the county could borrow up to $65 million without an increase.
Brittain said that meant the jail construction portion would not be the major portion of the increase. Right now, the county estimates a 5 cent property tax increase on $100 per assessed value for the construction.
The majority of the increase, though, would be to cover the cost of potential staffing at the new jail. Brittain said a staffing study is being conducted and those numbers would be available by January. Brittain had said earlier that staffing estimates could lead to more than 100 new staff members for the jail.
The committee voted 12-2 in favor of issuing the initial $20 million bond, which if approved by the full commission on Thursday, would be issued next month. NeSmith and Akard voted against.
Bessler told commissioners he expects the interest rate would be around 2.75 percent. If the commission waited to issue the bond, it could be a gamble and the interest rates may be higher, he said.
“If we lose that 2.75 percent, do people here realize what we lose if we come back next year and say it’s three percent or 3.25 percent?” Commissioner James Stepp asked. “Have you tossed those numbers around to see what would come out of your pocket then? Try about $500,000.”
The full commission will vote Thursday during its regularly scheduled meeting at 5 p.m. on issuing the initial $20 million bond.
“We’ve got to have a jail,” Huntsman said. “It’s inhumane right now.”