The grand jury has spoken and what they said should come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. The Bibb County Law Enforcement Center — better known as the jail — is old. At least the section that dates back to 1980. Something else that should not come as a surprise, Sheriff David Davis agrees.
A jail is not like any other building. It operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and the wear and tear on its infrastructure can’t be understated. Sheriff Davis believes the community should start making plans to replace it. Not just replace it, but move it to a central location “near downtown” but out of the way of development that’s squeezing it from Mercer University, the Second Street Corridor and downtown. The sheriff calls the present location “a stumbling block to long-term development.”
Funny, where have we heard that before?
Giving the devil his due, back in 2005, before the new jail wing was added, there was controversy over how to fund the court-mandated improvement. The mayor at the time, C. Jack Ellis, was opposed to building the addition, at a cost of $42 million, at the site where it now sits. Why? For the same reasons now stated by Sheriff Davis, because he thought it would hamper downtown development. He suggested moving the jail out of downtown possibly west to county-owned land or to the brownfields south of downtown.
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The choice for voters was fairly simple, either pay for the jail improvements using a special purpose local option sales tax, or through property taxes. At the time, no one was positive that asking voters to approve a SPLOST would succeed. A year earlier, a five year, $160 million “Recreation SPLOST” was defeated by 575 votes. However, this SPLOST was only designed to raise $87 million and last for 3.5 years.
This SPLOST question was back in the bad old days before consolidation when open warfare between our city and county governments was common. That warfare extended inside City Council chambers. Ellis, initially vetoed the intergovernmental agreement for the SPLOST that unanimously passed council. As expected, council overrode his veto, though he threatened court action. The SPLOST would pass on June 21 with more than 82 percent approval. And the rest, as they say, is history.
One prediction that has not come true is that the jail, even with its new expansion, would, within five years, exceed capacity of 966 inmates. That, thankfully, has not happened and over the past four years the jail has been 150 to 200 beds under capacity.
Whatever is in our future, we fortunately, have time for planning and community conversations about what we think should happen — not only about where we want a new jail facility to be located — but what is the appropriate use for the old site. And one more thing. How do we pay for it? Remember, when this becomes an issue, the leadership in place now, will, most likely, be gone.
Where a jail is located in any city can be a divisive proposition. Nobody wants a jail in their backyard. Being close to downtown and the judicial system is important, though not as important as it once was due to two-way video and other devices used to cut the time and expense of inmate transport to a minimum. Still, the sheriff and the deputies he commands need to be fairly centrally located. There are many considerations and the time to start putting on our thinking caps is now, not later.