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Wednesday, 08 May 2013 01:40

Price tag inches up on Cherokee jail and justice center

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fr cherokeejusticecenterMembers of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Tribal Council took issue with a construction budget increase for the tribe’s justice center and jail during their meeting last week, a sign of overall displeasure with past and current projects demanding more funds.

 

Cherokee does not currently have its own jail and instead pays a daily rate to house inmates in the jails of neighboring counties. The tribe is currently building its own jail, with an original estimated price tag of $20 million. Of that, $18 million came from federal stimulus dollars.

But, the project will actually run the tribe more like $26 million. Tribal Council passed a resolution last week approving the increased cost of the project.

The reason for change, according to finance officials, is because the scope of the project changed. The facility was always going to include a 75-bed jail, but as time moved on, the project was expanded to also include a new courthouse and police station.

“We tried to whittle it down, but we couldn’t,” said Kim Peone, deputy finance director for the Eastern Band.

But the members of Tribal Council were not satisfied and still wondered why the project couldn’t be completed within its original price tag. The council members’ complaints about the change in cost for the justice center displayed their overall annoyance with unexpected requests for more money.

“You guys come back wanting more, wanting more,” said Diamond Brown, a council member from Snowbird.

The council approves projects at a certain price, and then once the tribe is knee-deep in the project, someone comes back to council pleading for more money, according to a couple of council members.

One recent example is Sequoyah National Golf Course. The tribe spent $9 million to construct the golf course about four years ago. And although the course manager is adamant that the golf course will eventually turn a profit, it has not yet, so the Eastern Band has had to continually subsidize the venture with more than $1 million annually.

Terri Henry, a tribal council member from Painttown, also expressed frustration with the justice center budget but recognized that if the council did not sign off, the Eastern Band would lose out on the $18 million federal grant and the chance to open its own jail.

“We need a justice center,” Henry said. “I am sorry you guys went over budget, but let’s move on with it.”

The tribe received $18 million from the justice department to build its own jail as part of the Indian Country in Recover Act. Overall, the U.S. Department of Justice awarded more than $224 million to pay for the construction and renovation of prisons and jails on Indian reservations across the country.

The grant awarded to the Eastern Band required the tribe to match the department’s funds with $2 million of its own, hence the $20 million price tag. However now, the tribe will chip in $8 million total toward the project. The tribe’s endowment funds, its capital improvement fund and internal finance will make up the Eastern Band’s contribution.

Councilman Perry Shell of Big Cove called the justice center project “a good learning tool.” He asked that the Eastern Band’s Internal Audit department review it and keep an eye out for any unnecessary expense or fixable problems that could cost the tribe. The U.S. Department of Justice is already auditing the project as a condition of the grant award.

The Eastern Band currently pays Swain County $40 a day to house any enrolled members who are charged with a crime on the reservation. On any given day, the county houses about 25 inmates from Cherokee — about a third of Swain County’s nightly inmate population.

While enrolled members are happy a corrections facility is finally being built on the reservation, Swain County leaders are concerned about the loss of revenue from housing enrolled members and how the decline will affect its ability to pay off the debt of its own jail facility.

The county opened a brand new $10 million, 109-bed jail in 2008 and pays $454,000 a year toward the debt on that project. The loss of tribal inmates would amount to a $365,000 cut in revenue.

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