Hamblen County Commissioners expressed shock Thursday night when told the price tag of building and staffing a new jail would result in a property tax increase ranging from 28-cents to 34-cents on $100 of assessed value.
Commission Chairman Howard Shipley said that he did not think taxpayers would “stomach” that high of a tax increase.
“When we vote on it, this courtroom will be packed,” he said. “They may put us on a rail and ride us out of town.”
The potential tax increase came up during a Jail Study Committee meeting Thursday night of the Hamblen County Commission. County Mayor Bill Brittain went over details of financing for the new jail and the progress of the jail building program.
Brittain told commissioners that the county would possibly need a 5-cent tax increase to pay for building costs, along with improvements to Morristown-Hamblen High School West, and a 29-cent tax increase to pay for operating the jail, bringing the total to a 34-cent property tax increase.
Brittain said the jail is currently staffed for 56 corrections officers, but he said the staffing for a new jail could be 142 employees.
Brittain, on Friday morning, said he and other county officials had gone back over the proposed staffing and found positions that could possibly be cut.
“We share the commissioners’ concern about the cost of staffing the new facility,” Brittain said in a statement. “We will work throughout the design process to make it as staffing efficient as possible. Working with the commission, regulators and the jail administration, we have already identified 15 to 18 positions that can be reduced from the original number presented.”
Brittain said Friday with the cuts that would mean cutting 6 cents off the property tax increase.
That would mean a 23-cent property tax increase for operation costs plus the 5-cent increase for the jail and school improvements, meaning a total proposed 28-cent property tax increase.
The current projected price tag for building a new justice center, along with renovations at West High School, would be a total of $85 million. The jail would cost around $75 million, while West High School improvements are projected at $10 million.
Dr. Jeff Perry, supervisor of Hamblen County schools, updated the commission on the progress of the West High School renovations, saying the school system was currently in the design phase, which should be completed by December. He said once that is done, the school system would have “hard figure” on how much the renovations would cost.
But, the majority of the commissions’ concerns revolved around how costly the jail could end up being to taxpayers.
Shipley, at one point, tried to make a motion to cap the cost of the jail and the cost of operating costs for the jail at $75 million.
He brought up former Commissioner Louis “Doe” Jarvis, who died earlier this year and was a stalwart on the commission for trying to cut costs. Shipley said Jarvis always said there needed to be a cap set on design funding or it could get out of hand.
“He always said this would happen,” Shipley said. “And it did.”
Brittain said the plan for paying for the projects would be to issue four bonds over four years. The first bond would be this year for $20 million, the second next year for $20 million, the third in 2021 for $30 million and the last in 2022 for $15 million.
The projected date for completion of the jail is expected to be in 2022. Once completed, the proposed designs presented to the Jail Study Committee on Thursday show a total of 640 beds, three courtrooms, a consolidated County Clerk’s office and 135 new parking spaces.
The current justice center would still house the Hamblen County Sheriff’s Department, which would be able to expand into the County Clerk’s office as well as the current courtroom for General Sessions Judge Doug Collins. The current jail would be turned into a storage facility, Brittain said.
The Jail Study Committee approved issuing an initial $20 million bond next month to pay for jail building and school improvements and to authorize the $85 million for the projects.
County officials stressed Thursday night that voting on the proposals would not lock the county into paying the costs. Officials said it is required under state law to allow the public to voice any concerns they may have over the next 30 days.
Commissioner Jeff Akard vote no and Wayne NeSmith abstained.
The resolutions will now come before the full body of County Commission next Thursday during its regularly scheduled meeting.