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Panel talks future of annex, jail

Unicoi County officials are currently considering whether or not – and how – to consolidate the county’s two jail facilities into one.
For several years, female inmates have been housed at the Unicoi County jail annex on Jackson-Love Highway. This facility is also home to the offices of the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department and county 911 center. Male inmates are held at the jail facility adjacent to the Unicoi County Courthouse.
According to budget figures provided by the county mayor’s office, for the 2014-2015 fiscal year, almost $460,000 was budgeted for operations at the annex and almost $700,000 was budgeted for the jail – for a total of approximately $1.16 million in jail operations.
During a meeting of the Unicoi County Commission’s Building and Grounds Committee on Monday, June 8, County Mayor Greg Lynch told the committee that combining the two could save the county money in the future.
Members of the Building and Grounds Committee are commissioners Gene Wilson, Kenneth Garland and Jason Harris. Commissioners also in attendance at the meeting were Marie Rice, Walter Garland, John Mosley and Glenn White. Sheriff Mike Hensley and sheriff’s department Administrative Assistant Craig Masters were also in attendance at the meeting.
Also on hand during the meeting was Grant Tharp, an architect with the Knoxville-based firm Cope Architecture, who specializes in jail facilities.
“I have been practicing architecture for almost 30 years,” Tharp said. “… I have worked on a lot of projects similar to what you are facing.”
Tharp said he has met with the two state agencies “that handle” jail projects – the Tennessee Corrections Institute (TCI) and the County Technical Advisory Service (CTAS) – regarding the county’s jail facilities.
“We toured the existing jail,” he added. “We toured the annex. We had general discussions about those.”
Tharp said a few weeks ago he, along with TCI and CTAS officials, concluded “that it would make more sense” for the county to build on at the annex and move the male prisoners to that facility. He did say this recommendation was preliminary.
“We’ve done very little as far as evaluations of numbers and sketches and costs,” he added. “Everybody around the table, whether it was us, based on our experience, or CTAS and TCI guys, agreed that it seems to make more sense to do additions and expansions at the annex if the site will accommodate. There are additional parking requirements that would go along with that. We will have to look and see if that site would accommodate it where you don’t hem yourself in and a few years from now you’re looking at the same problems or issues.”
Tharp said there are “numerous reasons” why the men’s jail is not suitable for expansion. He said the next step, if the County Commission agrees, would be to move forward with what is needed at the annex.
Wilson, who chairs the Building and Grounds Committee, then asked if it would be cheaper for the county to stop housing female state of Tennessee inmates, close the annex and make the men’s jail able to hold a few female county inmates.
“I checked today,” Wilson added. “We don’t have a county female inmate in jail. We’re at zero, but we have 25 state females. We need to get out of the state inmate business.”
Tharp said the county should look at the most economic way to combine the facilities. Citing his firm’s recent work in Monroe County as an example, he said that renovating an old jail, such as Unicoi County’s men’s facility, is typically more costly than building on to a facility such as the county’s jail annex because of the inefficiencies of the old facility.
“We think it’s more economical to expand out (at the annex),” Tharp said. He also said a 100-bed facility to house 80 male inmates and 20 female inmates has been considered.
Tharp also said the facility constructed at the annex site would be of a “more efficient” design and would allow the county to employee less jail staff. Sheriff Mike Hensley reminded the committee that TCI regulates the number of staff required at a jail based on the number of posts, which is dictated by the design of the facility. Tharp agreed, adding that TCI does not mandate a ratio of staff to prisoners.
“The state will come in and evaluate the facility by post,” he added.
Tharp said his firm could do a study regarding the feasibility of expanding the annex for a cost of up to $10,000. Doing a study of both the annex and the jail would cost approximately $30,000.
Hensley reminded the committee of the sinkhole activity on the Love Chapel school property, which is located near the annex, and suggested the county make sure the annex property is suitable to build on first.
“There needs to be some core samples done,” he added.
Tharp said core samples would be an additional cost from the $10,000 and would be paid to a geotechnical firm qualified to take the samples. He said his firm has identified eight suggested boring sites on the annex property. The cost of that work would be between $3,000 and $6,000.
The Building and Grounds Committee agreed that a geotechnical firm should be hired to take the core samples shbefore the county allows Tharp’s firm to begin the suggested study. Wilson, Garland and Harris all voted yes to allow Lynch to hire a firm to take the samples and then report back to the committee.
The results of the samples will then determine the county’s next course of action.