Sunday, December 4, 2022

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Board spurns county’s lone bid to design new jail dormitory

Alamance County’s board of commissioners has decided to resume the search for an architect to design a new dormitory for the county’s detention center after some of its members balked at the size of the only offer that the county received when it initially bid out this project last fall.

During a regularly-scheduled meeting on Monday, the five-member board unanimously voted to rebid this contract rather than settle for the lone submission from Moseley Architects of Richmond, Virginia, which had agreed to design the 16-to-24 bed dorm at a cost of $126,400.

Although Moseley’s offer came with an endorsement from the county’s administrators, the firm’s six-figure proposal proved too steep for the likes of Steve Carter, who serves as the vice chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners.

“I don’t like to see us slow anything down,” Carter said after Monday’s decision, “but I do think they’re going way high on this.”

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The proposed contract with Moseley was to have been the first step in the construction of the new dormitory within an area that had originally been intended as an open-air recreation space for the county’s inmates. This exercise “yard” was one of several amenities that were added to the jail as part of a $12 million expansion that the county opened in the spring of 2007. But unlike other parts of this four-story addition, the recreation area has apparently fallen into disuse since the expansion’s completion nearly 13 years ago. 

According to county commissioner Tim Sutton, who had been on the board when its members approved the expansion, the exercise yard had been incorporated into this project at the behest of federal immigration authorities, who were interested in using the jail to house some of their detainees. Yet, the yard’s subsequent state of desolation didn’t prevent the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from renewing a long-dormant detention agreement with the county last February. In the meantime, the office of Alamance County’s sheriff has been increasingly hard pressed for detention space in order to accommodate prisoners from ICE and other federal and state agencies that have contracts to lease beds in the county’s detention center.

Prior to the board’s vote on Monday, Alamance County’s sheriff Terry Johnson tried to explain the predicament caused by the need to separate these detainees from the local inmate population, which must also be subdivided based on gender, age, and even rival gang affiliation.

“What a lot of people don’t know is that there are so many doggone rules that govern the operations of a jail,” Johnson told the county’s governing board. “We’ve got to have a place to separate these people to keep them safe.”

Johnson went on to bemoan his shortage of space for state misdemeanor offenders, whom he quarters under a contract with North Carolina’s Department of Correction.

The sheriff’s office currently has room for 80-plus inmates at a decommissioned state prison camp near the interstate interchange for N.C. 87 in Graham. Even so, the county’s administrators have agreed to back Johnson’s plan to build a new dormitory out of a long-term desire to consolidate the county’s detention facilities in a single location.

Alamance County’s manager Bryan Hagood told the commissioners that the county’s finance department has tentatively priced the new dorm’s construction at about $800,000. He added that he and his colleagues ultimately plan to fund this project through a $5 million loan that he has previously pitched to the commissioners to cover a range of facility-related expenses. Hagood stressed that the finance department still hasn’t determined exactly how much of the loan’s proceeds would go toward the jail’s proposed dormitory.

“Until we have the actual design done,” the county manager elaborated, “we won’t know the actual cost of the work to be done.”

The finance department’s preliminary estimate has nevertheless caused some sticker shock for Henry Vines, a farmer from Snow Camp who is also one of five Democrats currently running for the board of commissioners.

“I think this cost is a little too high,” Vines told the board’s current all-Republican lineup during a designated public comment period at the start of Monday’s proceedings. “Maybe this is cost prohibitive. Maybe this is not where we need to go.”

An ongoing reappraisal of bond policies within the local courts also raised some concerns for Anne Cassebaum, who likewise addressed the commissioners during Monday’s public comment period.

“With [Alamance County’s senor resident superior court] Judge [Tom] Lambeth and others exploring changes in our cash bail system, this doesn’t seem like the time to be expanding our jail,” Cassebaum told the county’s governing board.  “Is this the time to get behind prison expansion? Can’t we invest our money more wisely?” In the meantime, the sheriff’s proposal, as well as the potential contract with Moseley, drew a more sympathetic response from Amy Scott Galey, the chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners. Galey, who is also currently a candidate for North Carolina’s state senate, assured her colleagues that the anticipated cost of the new dormitory is quite reasonable compared to the $12 million that the county spent on the jail’s expansion in 2007.  Galey nevertheless voted with the rest of the board to send the dormitory’s design services back out to bid in order to solicit some competition to Moseley’s six-figure submission.

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