Candidates at forum: Contracting out jail services could be in Polks future

Published 1:10 pm Friday, October 15, 2010

Some candidates for Polk County commissioner say the county may need to consider in the future housing inmates elsewhere.

The AAUW held a candidate forum last Thursday with Anna Conner serving as moderator. All eight candidates for three open commissioner seats participated, including incumbents Ray Gasperson (D), Tommy Melton (Unaffiliated) and Warren Watson (Unaffiliated), who are being challenged by Margaret Johnson (D), David Moore (R), Tom Pack (R), Ted Owens (R) and Benny Smith (D).

Asked how they will handle future jail needs, most candidates responded that recent upgrades to the jail, including a new roof and budgeted plumbing repairs may buy the county a few more years.

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Watson said discussions with the county manager have included that if the jail does need to be replaced in the future, the county may want to consider sub-contracting out those services with a neighboring county for long term inmates and using the Polk County jail for short term inmate stays.

I think thats one way we can collaborate with other agencies and keep our costs down for the taxpayers of the county, said Watson.

Owens said the issue of a new jail has been in the works and a concern for a long time and six years ago when he was a commissioner, the board put a new jail in its long-term building plan. If that plan is still followed, Owens said, a new jail will eventually be built.

We had some work done on the building and it did improve the situation, said Owens. We need to replace the jail at some point in time.

Smith said the jail is about 35 years old and mentioned that the roof was replaced last year and the county has $110,000 currently budgeted to improve the plumbing. He said the current jail with the improvements should withstand another five or six years and he agreed with Watsons suggestion to house long-term inmates elsewhere.

Im in favor of what Mr. Watson said that we can probably send some of the long timers over to Rutherford County, Smith said. They have a 200 bed jail over there. We can probably keep them a lot cheaper over there than we can in our own jail.

Pack said the county has known for a long time it needs to do something with the jail. He mentioned he was on the same board of commissioners as Owens, which set up a building plan.

Weve pretty much come down the list until the DSS (department of social services) and mental health are finished, said Pack, and the jail is going to be the next one. And there again, its going to be a decision, do we build a jail to house prisoners here or do we think its financially better to for the county to house them in a neighboring county?

Gasperson said whats important about the jail is that upgrades have been done, including the new roof and the current plan for a major plumbing upgrade with the budgeted $110,000. He said the county needs to look at the situation in terms of local jobs. He said a good time to start looking at a new jail will be when the county gets the middle school paid off.

If we do start transferring and using the facility over in Rutherford County, it might be a good step perhaps, but wed also be giving up local jobs that are being employed there in the jail, said Gasperson. If we were to move quickly on a new jail, without a doubt it would require a tax increase and I dont think anybody wants to go down that road.

Incumbent Melton said when he first became a commissioner, the board received a regular report on the condition of the jail and that almost four years ago, the condition of the jail was catastrophic. Under the guidance of current sheriff Donald Hill, Melton said, the county was able to improve the quality of the jail.

There were light fixtures that were not working, there were air conditioning units that were not working, the roof was leaking, said Melton. Im not aware of any issues at this time that are major. We have replaced the roof and we are going to spend $100,000 to fix the plumbing that should be starting shortly. If we were to look at building a jail in the future, I would like to look at housing the prisoners outside the county and see what that would cost us versus building a new jail in Polk County.

Johnson said she has heard people talk about concerns about the jail, but it is her understanding that the jail recently got a fairly good report.

A lot of money is going to making repairs, but from what I understand also the jail is not being used to capacity at this time, said Johnson. So I think its something to always be on our radar since we are putting a lot of maintenance money into it, but at this point I dont see it as our most critical this year.

Moore said he agrees that the county needs a new jail at some point in time.

We all know that maintenance on an older building gets more and more expensive every year, Moore said.

Moore said he thinks the county should stay in tune with the state because they have guidelines and inspect jails and make reports to counties.

We need to be prepared for that and have long range planning when the state says we have issues we have to deal with, Moore said.

Other questions during the debate included the candidates thoughts on the water situation and regarding the county and towns creating a water authority, All candidates agreed the county needs to work with its towns and try to create a water authority for the future.

Candidates were also asked how they plan to protect the countys rural environment and promote economic development, what they feel are their individual strengths, their recommendations for the countys Vision 20/20 plan and their thoughts on supporting the Foothills Human Society.

Another question regarded the recent controversial issue of the new DSS building, which is currently in the beginning stages of construction. Opinions differed on the building, with Republican and Unaffiliated candidates saying they think the current building plans are too large and Democratic candidates say they support the size for future growth.

Regardless, most commented that the size of the buildings ship has sailed, and the new board will have to move forward with the project. All candidates did agree that a new DSS building is needed and moving the department out of the aged Jervey Palmer building should have been done years ago.

Conner ended the forum by thanking all candidates for participating and for running for office. She said many residents complain about government, but candidates are doing what most people wont do sticking their neck out and for that she thanked them.

Another candidate forum will be held at the Saluda Senior Center on Oct. 21 beginning at 7 p.m.