JPs have a lot to say about jail improvement ordinance

Justice of the Peace Mike Loe tells Judge Doug Fields that the quorum court should regroup and consider all elements of improving or building a new jail before moving forward with the ordinance read to improve the county jail at the November Quorum Court meeting, (Joshua Turner / Banner-News)

Many Justices of the Peace were against an ordinance read during a regular Quorum Court meeting Monday which proposed using 75% of county sales tax revenues to make improvements to the county jail and add 100 to 200 beds.

A sister ordinance that would put the first to a vote of the people was also read during Monday's meeting.

Former sheriff and JP Mike Loe said, "Sheriff (Leroy) Martin has a problem with space in the jail. He can't even house misdemeanors. It's my opinion that we need to back up and start over on this from the very beginning. There needs to be a meeting with the Quorum Court to tell us and the public what you want, what your goals are, what this is going to cost, how much manpower will need to be hired to maintain it and the design. I think in all fairness to our citizens, this is their money. It's not ours and if we want to undertake a project this massive, then it needs to start with an open discussion."

Loe and other JPs said that they had no knowledge of the proposed ordinance until they received their agenda prior to the meeting.

"What JPs sponsored these ordinances and what JPs sponsored the facility improvements?" asked JP Annette Pate.

County Judge Doug Fields said that he had forgotten to speak to a JP for sponsorship before the ordinance was added to the November meeting agenda.

Pate said, "Is this a new jail? Or is this an addition? All we've ever discussed that I remember is building the new jail, not an addition."

JP Russell Thomas said he also has issues with additions to the current jail, but that he would support a new jail.

Pate asked where the money would come from, and Fields said it would come from sales tax revenues currently streaming into the county's Solid Waste fund, which he said has $15.5 million in unspent funds.

JP Terry Williams said he thinks more research is necessary to help JPs determine whether the proposed addition to the jail is feasible. He also questioned why the county would add on to a jail that has been having issues and is on bad land instead of building a new jail.

"I've had previous meetings with engineers that said it wasn't bad," said Fields.

JP Jeremy Langley said that he believes that the ordinance should have started with the Quorum Court's Jail Committee.

"I think the consensus of the court has been to build new in a different location," said Thomas.

"Mayor (Parnell) Vann is offering between 20 and 30 acres on high ground for free to construct a new facility. He said he would deed us that land if the county took control of the jail permanently. Probably everyone in this county knows what I think about (the current) jail. That building was built in a swamp in the lowest spot in the county. Why they did that is beyond me. I think we need to sit down from the beginning, see what we want, answer a bunch of questions to our voters and move forward from there," said Loe.

Langley noted that the county did not have the money in the budget to increase jailer pay -- referring to a request from Martin in February to raise jailer pay that didn't go anywhere -- and he's curious how the county will be able to afford to pay the additional jailers that would be necessary with additional beds in the jail.

"I'm trying to be a good steward of the taxpayer dollars. This isn't our money, it's theirs. I would hate to tell them we can afford to build this but I don't know if we can afford to operate it," said Langley.

Williams added, "We are also talking about a new jail but we don't say a thing about county roads. Maybe we need to get something done and take some of this money here and see if we can fix some county roads. That would be a plus."

Loe agreed that tying a new jail to funding for county roads would make residents more likely to vote for the ordinance.

County Treasurer Selena Blair said that there will be a record high of $6 million dollars in the 2024 budget for roads.

JP Penny Cook said that consideration will need to be made for city sales taxes and property taxes if the Quorum Court decides to take Vann's land offer.

Loe asked Fields to consider regrouping to plan and add road funding to the ordinance.

Both ordinances were read once during the meeting.

Lafayette County attempted to pass a referendum to make improvements and add 40 beds to their jail. The referendum did not pass, with 181 for and 279 votes against it.

In February, Martin said the roof of the jail had severe leaks that was leading to mold.

"I'll tell you how bad it's getting -- some mold on the inside. We're cleaning it up," he said at the time. Martin also warned then that much of the plumbing in the building is rusted and will need to be fixed or replaced. One of the major concerns Martin noted is that people held in jail may be able to take legal action against the county for the hazardous conditions. Martin proposed building a new detention center, as the current one may become more damaged, and housing prisoners at other facilities would cost more money than repairs would. Repairs to the roof have been made this year.

He also asked for a raise in jailer pay in February. Jailers will receive a pay raise with the 2024 budget, which increases county employee pay by 8.5%. This will increase jailers' starting pay to $35,470.46.