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Opposition to Haywood jail project, although minor, still lingers

Opposition to Haywood jail project, although minor, still lingers

Haywood County commissioners took another step toward their multi-million dollar jail expansion last week, and although much has changed since a report issued more than three years ago recommended the project, much has not. 

“I wanted to state my opposition to the expansion of the jail,” said Joslyn Schaefer, a Haywood County resident. “I want to highlight the beginning benefits that we’re starting to see with the drug court, which I know isn’t under your jurisdiction but I’m hoping that that will continue to grow in its success. And I also wanted to note that as we struggle from time to time with a higher [jail population] census, I wonder if that couldn’t be kind of a bellwether for us to wonder what’s going on and other pockets of our community and how can we work together with community partners and strengthen families and schools.” 

Schafer, who spoke at the Feb. 5 commission meeting, was preceded by another Haywood County resident, Susan Trahan, who expressed deeper concerns over the long-term financial ramifications of borrowing for construction and of budgeting for staffing once it’s open.

“I feel strongly that the future growth in Haywood County should not be based on housing detained people, and I urge you to consider alternative solutions to this issue,” Trahan said.

The minor opposition is a far cry from when the possibility of jail expansion was first mentioned in a November 2020 report from the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office that cited capacity concerns.

On Jan. 4, 2021, a small crowd gathered outside the Historic Haywood Courthouse to voice opposition to the jail, instead positing that it would be better to spend the money on treating mental health issues and substance use disorder.

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The next month, speakers at a commission meeting again urged commissioners to consider combating the drivers of incarceration. Three months after that, speakers again asked that the $16 million be spent in other ways.

In the meantime, COVID-19 and inflation conspired to delay the project until April 2022, when commissioners moved forward by selecting an architect.

The amount of opposition, however, isn’t the only thing that’s changed since the project was first proposed. Vannoy Construction, the contractor selected for the project, advised the county that the guaranteed maximum price now stands at $27.5 million, well above the original $16 million estimate.

That $27.5 million doesn’t include so-called “soft costs” the county has already paid for, including approximately $1.8 million for the architect and additional fees for legal work and soil testing. County Manager Bryant Morehead said he’d have a firm number on those soft costs soon, but he estimated the total was under $2.5 million.

Morehead went on to address some of Trahan’s concerns about staffing cost but added that those costs were still years away from impacting the budget.

“We know that we’ll have to phase in employees,” Morehead said. “I haven’t talked with the sheriff yet … if we start and we’re hoping to start [construction] the end of or middle of March, that build is going to be about 18 months if everything goes according to plan, so it will actually be fiscal year 2026, maybe into 2027 as we start to fund operating [costs].” 

An increase in utility costs and insurance will accompany the project, but those costs — in addition to staffing — will depend on jail population.

At least some of the $27.5 million cost also includes upgrades to the existing jail, including a new roof as well as security upgrades.

“Most of that’s for safety,” said Commission Chairman Kevin Ensley. “For employees, and then for the inmates.” 

The jail discussion came in the context of a public hearing required for the county to craft an initial findings resolution for submission to the Local Government Commission, under the auspices of North Carolina Treasurer Dale Folwell’s office.

The LGC is an oversight body that provides resources and guidance to more than a thousand local government units in the state on issues like budgeting and borrowing.

In a nutshell, the initial findings resolution confirms that it is the will of Haywood commissioners to authorize staff to begin the process of borrowing the funds necessary for construction, as the county does not have the money laying around and can’t just whip out its checkbook and pay cash for the project.

At the next meeting of the Haywood County Board of Commissioners, scheduled for Feb. 19, the initial findings resolution will be on the agenda for approval. Morehead said that at that time, he’d have solid numbers on the out-of-pocket costs the county has already paid.

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