Sullivan Co. mayor pushes to fund new jail projected at $72 million

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BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL)- The mayor of Sullivan County is making his case for why now is the right time to fund a new jail. Mayor Richard Venable told News Channel 11 a new jail is projected to cost around $72 million, and he’s in favor of a property tax increase that would help fund it. Property owners could see that increase immediately if plans are approved by the county commission.

“There’s never a good time to build a jail. Never,” Venable said.

But due to low federal interest rates, Venable believes this is the best position Sullivan County has ever been in to issue over $70 million worth of bonds. It would fund Phase 1 of building a new jail facility next to the old one.

New floor and site plans from firms TreanorHL and MBI were on display at Thursday’s commission work session. The Phase 1 jail construction would have a total of 1,179 beds and contain updated facility areas such as booking, kitchen, and medical.

The county commission must approve a property tax increase for it to happen. Venable believes the adjustment shouldn’t be more than 15 cents. A 15 cent raise would shift Sullivan County’s tax rate from $2.57 to $2.73 per $100 of evaluation.

“I think that’s a high number, I think it will be less than that,” said Venable. “But we have to know at the time we issue the bonds what that tax rate will produce.”

Venable says talks on fixing the overcrowded jail have already gone on for six years. He believes the recent COVID-19 outbreak among inmates and lack of space for isolating the infected only further highlight the need for action.

“We have nearly a third of our jail who were infected with COVID, and 750 inmates and no area to separate them in. That’s what we’re facing today. We want to make sure we’re not facing it tomorrow,” said Venable.

Mayor Richard Venable

A resolution authorizing the issue of between $72-79 million of bonds and raising property taxes could have its first reading at next week’s commission meeting. The resolution would need to pass on second reading as well to become law, which would likely occur at a special-called meeting in the coming weeks.

Sullivan County commissioners like Dwight King still want more details on the funding, such as a year-by-year breakdown. He said the jail funding proposal caught commissioners by surprise.

“We’ve got a period where we could raise our taxes and set a bond. Right now I’m not in favor of that. I think we’re too far out. I think we need to do a little more studying, and a little more figuring of how much it’s going to cost us actually,” said King.

King also believes there should be more time to explain the decision to taxpayers.

“They need to know the facts and figures, and why we’re doing it,” said King. “You know, we’ve got lawsuits. And I’m not in favor of paying out lawsuits instead of putting it on the jail.”

Floor plans show Phase 1, as well as future Phase 2 & 3

Moving forward with new jail construction could help the county avoid costly lawsuits or potential jail decertification. Venable said there are other reasons for the timing of the vote.

“I’d be remiss if I didn’t say next year’s an election year. Election years are never good times to get 13 votes on a tax increase,” he said.

Venable said the new jail is designed to where it could be expanded quickly. A potential Phase 2 and Phase 3 of construction were also on the site plans. Venable said Phase 2 would be an additional 256 beds, but he doesn’t believe the inmate population will require that amount for at least the next five to eight years. Building Phase 2 would raise costs to around $83 million.

Venable said Phase 3 is projected to cost $125-130 million to build all new courtrooms for the Sullivan County Justice Center. The mayor said he didn’t anticipate ever getting to this phase.

If the commission approves the plan, the mayor hopes it will take only a year to have a contract with a construction company to build the jail.

“If we act next week, we’ll be able to hit all those marks that we need to get the best deal for the people of Sullivan County,” he said.

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