Construction contract approved for Haywood jail expansion

Haywood County’s long overdue jail expansion has been talked about for years. File photo Haywood County’s long overdue jail expansion has been talked about for years. File photo

After an extensive, yearslong process featuring dozens of public hearings, presentations and private meetings, Haywood County will finally get its badly-needed jail expansion, even though the final step was marred by threats and misinformation from a familiar face. 

On March 4, commissioners approved an installment financing contract, in essence agreeing to borrow an amount not to exceed $28.5 million through the sale of bonds. County Manager Bryant Morehead had estimated the interest rate for the 20-year fixed loan at 5%; however, the rate actually came in around 3.5%, which will save taxpayers thousands of dollars over decades.

“I think that speaks volumes of the creditworthiness of Haywood County and the economy,” Morehead told commissioners during the March 18 meeting.

The bond sale generated just over $26 million, which together with a $5 million allocation from the North Carolina General Assembly will pay for the 155-bed expansion.

Commissioner Tommy Long called the $5 million “a direct result of [Haywood County Republican Rep.] Mark Pless’ work for Haywood County.”

“I’ve said it before — love Mark, hate Mark, whatever you want to do — Mark has brought more money back to Haywood County by accident than some of our former representatives did on purpose,” Long said.

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The capital outlay for the building and the site preparation sits at $28.5 million, not including professional services, management fees and attorney payments that will push the total to around $31 million.

But Janet Presson, who for years has spread debunked theories from discredited “experts” about everything from vaccines to masking to the county’s non-existent needle exchange program, emerged during public comment to allege commissioners were intentionally misleading the public.

Presson explained when she visited the county’s website to read the agenda for the March 4 meeting where the installment financing contract was approved, she didn’t see anything of interest but was later angered to learn that a vote had indeed been held.

When she went back to find out how she’d missed the item, she claimed the agenda was deceptive because the agenda item was titled as a resolution “… Approving an Installment Financing Contract and Delivery Thereof ...”

However, the resolution attached to the agenda item stated that “the Board has previously determined that it is in the best interest of the County to (1) enter into an Installment Financing Contract (the “Contract”) with the Haywood County Financing Corporation (the “Corporation”) to finance renovations and an expansion to the existing County detention center.”

Presson ended her comments with a threat to the board’s chair and vice chair, respectively.

“Commissioners Ensley and Rogers, you better understand that there are many registered Republicans who will not be voting for you this fall due to this type of behavior,” she said.

Ensley repudiated Presson, then asked Long to clarify — which he did in intricate detail, over the course of nearly 40 minutes.

“We have met 16 times in this room, 16 times it’s been on the agenda, starting on Nov. 2 of 2020, when we had the needs assessment … Not only did we have 16 of these meetings, but there was also some auxiliary meetings with a jail steering committee,” Long recounted.

Long outlined all the steps in the process over the past four years, including a soil analysis, presentations from two architectural firms, required public hearings, a rejected single construction bid, a jail tour and the most recent workshop held on Feb. 26.

“I can assure you this [project] didn’t fall out of the sky last week on us,” Long said. “It didn’t fall off the cabbage truck last week.”

Ensley responded by lamenting that in the past, those who wish to voice legitimate concerns about major county initiatives always seem to materialize near the end of the approval process.

“Every building project — and I’ve been a part of a lot of building projects for the last 20 years, 25 years I guess in the county — we always methodically go through this, and then it seems like when we go to vote, particularly on the vote, everybody shows up then,” he said.

The construction contract, awarded to Vannoy Construction, was approved by commissioners on a 3-0 vote including a ‘yes’ from Commissioner Terry Ramey, who’d previously voted against the public safety project on March 4. During the meeting, Ramey explained his March 4 ‘no’ vote by saying he “didn’t feel like this was the right time for that amount of money,” but later in the meeting admitted that if commissioners didn’t move forward with the project, in the future it would cost “a ton more.”

Ramey also said he was elected to look after the people’s tax money, even though he didn’t pay his own property taxes for nearly 15 years, made false statements about his taxes and still owes the county nearly $2,000 as of late February.

Commissioner Brandon Rogers was absent due to a pre-planned family vacation, and Commissioner Jennifer Best left 35 minutes into the meeting — well before the vote, but after the public comment session — for an unexpected family health emergency.

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