Commissioners cautious on proposal to build new jail for Pulaski County
By: Darrell Todd Maurina
Sheriff J.B. King and jail architect Larry Goldberg review jail plans.
PULASKI COUNTY, Mo. (March 22, 2010) — Jail architect Larry Goldberg presented a study Monday morning on ways Pulaski County could build a jail without a tax increase, but commissioners received Goldberg’s plans with caution and warned that the county doesn’t have enough money for any major additional expenses.
Goldberg’s fee of $5,500 for the jail study was paid out of a civil fee fund controlled by Sheriff J.B. King which isn’t part of the regular county budget and by state law is under the sheriff’s discretionary control, not the control of the county commissioner.
Goldberg, the president of a St. Joseph-based jail design firm known as Goldberg, Sullivan and McCrerey which has built numerous jails in Missouri, said he believes Pulaski County can afford a new jail.
“When we were first retained by the sheriff it was to do an exploratory study … of how all this might be pulled together in a viable financing in which the question could be answered, bluntly, ‘Can Pulaski County capture or recapture enough resources to make the desire and construction of a new law enforcement center viable without a tax increase?’” Goldberg said. “To me the answer may well be yes, and I’m going to illustrate this.”
Goldberg presented two different plans, one with a “smaller, tighter site” on the courthouse square with a mid-rise building stacked on top of the existing sheriff’s office, and the other using a different location, possibly one across the street from the courthouse.
Goldberg said the current site would cost about $10.3 million due to elevators, stairs, floor separations and other costs; a low-rise site on adjacent property would probably cost a little over $9 million.
“We have done a number of jails in Missouri, we have done a number of jails all over the United States, and it has been a hallmark of our practice that for all these years, we have sought answers for our county clients that were more than just architecture,” Goldberg said. “There’s no point in my giving you an $8 million jail and then (the sheriff) is in front of you saying you, ‘I don’t have mattresses, I don’t have personal effects kits, I don’t have chairs.’”
Goldberg said it’s important that the sheriff and the architect work together closely.
“The stories are legion of an architect that told the board that ‘You can operate my design with 10 jailers,’ and then six weeks before it opens, the sheriff is standing in front of saying he’s got to hire eight more people. That doesn’t happen with our designs. It shouldn’t happen with anybody’s designs,” Goldberg said.
Goldberg said recapturing boarding fees is “a substantial part of the picture” in paying for a jail. The county currently pays hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to other counties to house inmates, part of which is reimbursed by the state of Missouri for felony inmates who are eventually sent to state prisons, but Presiding Commissioner Don McCulloch took aim at a budget that includes recapturing $127,000 fees at $40 per day from misdemeanor inmates who are sentenced to the county jail rather than state prison.
“You charge the inmate for the misdemeanors, do you not?” asked Joe Weber, one of Goldberg’s employees.
“We do, but we collect very little. That’s $127,000 that you’re not going to be collecting; that’s not realistic,” said McCulloch. “This board from other jails, where do you think that would be coming from? The counties around us all have new jails.”
Goldberg said his work is only preliminary and he will be adjusting the line items based on what he learns from later study.
Goldberg said there are three main ways to finance a jail: bonds, structured leases, and stimulus money. While bonds are currently carrying 4.5 to 4.8 percent interest, Goldberg said structured leases and using federal stimulus money provide more flexibility and may be able to cut annual payment substantially.
Whatever financing method is used, Goldberg said a revenue-to-debt ratio of 1.35 to 1.2 is important to account for emergency unplanned expenses, and will be expected by the lenders financing the county’s project.
Stimulus funds through the United States Department of Agriculture rural development program may be the best option for Pulaski County, Goldberg said, and is currently being done by his company with Andrews County to build a new jail at a 4 percent interest rate for 40 years. The county will likely refinance before the 40-year period, he said.
“The USDA doesn’t finance jails; this is new. The only reason they are doing this is because they have stimulus money to do it, and right now the state of Missouri is graced with more money than it has projects to spend it on, so they are pretty aggressive,” Goldberg said. “What this did for Andrew County is it took a $361,000 annual bond payment for 30 years, because you can’t do bonds longer than 30 years, and lowered it to $261,000 using the USDA, so you saved almost $100,000 a year.”
The major problem with stimulus funding is a large amount of paperwork and uncertainty on how long USDA will be able to use stimulus funding. Funding will definitely be available through October, Goldberg said, but “beyond that, nobody knows.”
Weber said other options to reduce costs may include using State Emergency Management funding and hazard mitigation grants that will probably expire in July.
“When we work with SEMA we create things like what they call a ‘safe room’ where people from the community can come in the event of a disaster for a period of a couple of hours to provide shelter for them during a disaster,” Weber said, citing meeting rooms, recreation rooms, and indoor gun ranges that can be structured as SEMA-eligible safe rooms, with SEMA funding up to 75 percent.
“We have to remember that if we are bringing people into the sheriff’s office, how much of that actually can we expose to the public. Where do we draw the line?” Weber asked. “We wouldn’t necessarily want to fund a place where we would put sensitive information.”
“Not jumping the gun, but have you guys had any success at getting any grants or any funding through Homeland Security?” asked Commissioner Bill Farnham. “Being located where we are next to Fort Leonard Wood, I didn’t know if maybe that would be something that should be looked at long and hard.”
Goldberg said Vernon County did get two $25,000 emergency communications equipment grants, and asked for the “passive support” of the commissioners.
“I’m not asking you to make any decision today… we were hired by the sheriff to do a job and that job is not yet complete,” Goldberg said. “The idea is … to lay at the sheriff’s and your table where the viable options are for Pulaski County to finally consider, after all these years, moving this much-needed project ahead.”
Goldberg said several factors are in the county’s favor: construction costs are 8 to 15 percent below a few years ago, interest rates are lower but creeping up slowly, and stimulus funding is available.
“This is what I am asking for your passive support, your quiet support in continuing to pursue these study-related activities,” Goldberg said.
“The cost for continuing your study is?” asked McCulloch.
“There is no additional cost. We have a deal with the sheriff for $5,500 and this is all part of it,” Goldberg said.
McCulloch said he didn’t mind continued planning, but wanted hard numbers before he would make any decision.
Responding to questions from McCulloch, Goldberg said video arraignment and video visitation are both planned for the jail to reduce costs to have deputies or jail bailiffs accompany inmates to court hearings or visitation with family members.
Commissioner Ricky Zweerink noted that the county had only five jailers until a grant allowed the sheriff to hire additional jailers
“We have eight extra deputes under his grant now. What happens when they goes away?” Zweerink asked.
“We either come up with some way to pay them or we go back to the same five-person staffing level we had before,” King said. “Staffing is a major, major problem for any proposed project like this.”
“The staffing thing just scares me more than you can imagine,” Zweerink said.
McCulloch also asked why the jail proposal had a kitchen and said having kitchen employees is a problem; Weber said the jail could contract with a food service provider to staff a kitchen.
McCulloch also said he has problems with a plan that currently budgets nothing for utilities, noting that the courthouse maintenance fund board may not be willing to continue to pay utilities on a much larger jail addition.
A major item in the plan is budgeting for federal inmates.
“You have $306,000 for (federal prisoner housing). Do you think that is realistic?” McCulloch asked. “At one time that was wonderful because of I-44 we have lots of federal prisoners being transported. However, with the new Laclede County and the new sheriff’s department, do you have an estimate of how much it costs per inmate per day to house?”
Weber and Goldberg both said they believe the number is realistic.
“It goes without saying that these are preliminary figures that will be adjusted as we go on,” Goldberg said. “We have never built a jail that did not attract prisoners… the track record we have is pretty indisputable.”
“This is not going to be guesswork; we will not go ahead with any kind of project based on some kind of hope or prayer or smoke or mirrors. What we would do is investigate the extent to which you could count on them how much you could count on them if not more,” Goldberg said.
McCulloch wasn’t convinced.
“I know Phelps County did theirs and after they got the bricks and mortar and everything and the doors open, they didn’t have enough people to staff it. That’s what I’m looking at. There’s ways to come up with the bricks and mortar, but the everyday maintenance of taking care of a jail is far more than anything else,” McCulloch said. “I’m a former sheriff and that’s the biggest headache you can have.”
Responding to questions from McCulloch, Goldberg said 70 beds are currently needed by Pulaski County, 28 in the current jail and the rest for inmates held in other counties, and his plan called for building 124 beds for expansion and housing other county’s prisoners and federal prisoners.
“I understand that, and that’s good (but) for now that means you’re having 54 extra beds unused which we’re heating and cooling,” McCulloch said. “I am not opposed to the 124 beds, it’s just that for a long period of time you’re sitting there with space you’re not using.”
“How many custodians would it take for a building of that size? That’s not figured in here, either,” McCulloch said.
The county jailer said the inmates do the cleaning now.
“They need to take a class or two, because it’s a mess over there,” McCulloch said.
McCulloch said the bottom line for him on a new jail will be the per-day inmate cost.
“If it costs us more than $50 a day to house a prisoner in this new facility, we’d be silly not to contract it out like we’re doing and avoid all these headaches that we’re having. Your bottom line to me, and what my vote will depend on, is how much per day this facility is going to cost,” McCulloch said. “If we’re paying $35 now, just to have a nice pretty building sitting there is not a wise use of the taxpayer’s money, and that’s what I am responsible for.”
Goldberg said the real cost is normally $24 to $32 for inmates, with $22 to $26 for housing and $6 to $8 for debt service.
“In order to get my support you have to show me that the cost is less than $35 per day,” McCulloch repeated.
“That’s only part of the question,” Goldberg replied. “After a certain period of time that debt service will fall away and we will have an asset to use for years to come rather than paying for someone else’s asset.”
That didn’t satisfy McCulloch, who noted his prior experience with jail management as the county sheriff and work for years as chief of the Waynesville Police Department.
“I’m very pro-law enforcement, I’ve been in law enforcement for than 30 years, this is something I’d like to see, but we’ve still got to answer to the taxpayers. If we can do that, then I think we can get their support,” McCulloch said.
Responding to questions from Goldberg, King said a smaller jail which could then be expanded would be possible but not preferable.
“It depends a lot on the prosecutor and the courts. Over the last several years we have kept it down under the 70 (inmate) mark almost religiously,” King said. “If you propose a 90-bed jail you would have maximum space and it would allow you to house for a period of time into the future, probably another seven or eight years probably before you really got caught in the pinch and had to do the expansion.”
“I know from talking to our circuit judges, they would love to impose more active sentences on repeat offenders in this county to get the point of judicial punishment across to them,” King said. “We would have the ability to fill a 90-bed jail fairly quickly if the judges were able to do that.”
King said a more serious problem looms in the future.
“Somewhere down the road Phelps and Miller will be full and at that point they will no longer be taking our prisoners and we will have to have the extra space,” King said.
Goldberg said a 67-bed facility in Andrews County, with a fill-in for 75 beds total, cost $5.3 million with $261,000 annual debt service and required 10 to 11 jailers, not 16.
“(This) compares favorably with even the money you’re spending to board prisoners out,” Goldberg said. “Maybe what really needs to be looked at is whether or not a smaller version of this with two or three ways to expand incrementally so if you need to add some beds you’re not immediately spending another $2 or $3 million dollars, with less than the money you are spending and not quite the personnel, maybe just the personnel you have, maybe that’s what we ought to be looking at.”
McCulloch said he’s not convinced Pulaski County will be seeing constant increases in its jail population.
“As Iraq downsizes and they get something done with Afghanistan in the future, we’re not going to have the population that we do at Fort Leonard Wood, and therefore you’re not going to have the bad influence that comes along with the military installation. All growth is not positive,” McCulloch said.
Farnham disagreed, and said with more national economic problems, crime is likely to increase.
“Our area is going to continue to grow and prosper; it’s inevitable,” Farnham said. “I think Fort Leonard Wood is going to continue to be a premier military installation, and I think we have to think in the future, we have to think five or 10 years or 20 years down the road and we have to be ready for it.”
One area on which Goldberg did agree with the commissioners is that a tax increase probably isn’t realistic to build a new jail. Goldberg said voters in the current economic climate rarely approve tax increases for anything other than schools or absolutely essential items such as sewer or water treatment plants.
“I don’t think a tax, if it was put on the ballot today with the economy the way it is, would pass, that’s just being honest,” McCulloch said.
“I don’t think we could swing anything. That’s my personal opinion. I’m not sure we can get there, because we’ve got a problem, guys,” Zweerink said.
“If what you spend right now is about $350,000 per year boarding prisoners elsewhere,” Goldberg replied. “That’s a doable deal. Listen to me. This is $261,000 per year, which would give you roughly $100,000 more.”
“I can sell that when I visit Wal-Mart shopping to people who come up and want to kill me,” McCulloch said. “For my part, and you asked if you have permission to go on, if you will look at something like this with 90 beds and under for now that can be built on, I think you should continue, because it is something that we need … But we aren’t going to be raising taxes.”
“You mention any fee increase now they come after you,” Zweerink said. “The problem is we don’t know how bad it’s going to get; we don’t know what’s coming.”
Rev. Dwaine Carter, the pastor of Harmony Baptist Church who also serves as the sheriff’s department chaplain, said he isn’t convinced residents will oppose a new jail if the funding can be proven.
“So what I heard is we’re paying $350,000 to put prisoners elsewhere, and there could be a debt service reduction to $261,000, which leaves $90,000 per year for staffing insurance, utilities, all these people,” Carter said. “That’s a no-brainer from a public standpoint.”