County may pursue new jail funding

Jeremy Nash

Loudon County Commission will consider a resolution at its February meeting that through state legislation will allow the county to implement an additional $50 litigation tax to help pay for a jail addition at the Justice Center.

The idea was approved by Loudon County Partnership Corrections Committee in December and brought before county commission during last week’s workshop by Ninth Judicial District Attorney General Russell Johnson, who serves as jail committee chairman.

“Act now and get the representative and the senator working before the bill deadline because it’s harder,” Johnson said during the workshop. “I think there is going to be a bill for amendments. ... Roane County is looking at this at their next meeting as well. ... I know (County Technical Assistance Service) is working with all the counties whose jail is decertified to let them know about this mechanism to give them the option.

“They’re hopeful that they’ll just go ahead and pass a general law covering everybody that will allow you to opt in, but my concern is if that doesn’t happen, go ahead and get on the roster,” he added.

Commission will need to have a two-thirds majority to pass the litigation tax, but the resolution will only require a simple majority.

Estimating the number of cases around 13,000, with a tax collection at 60 percent, Budget Director Tracy Blair said supporting a debt of about $20 million over 20-25 years would be “very doable” with the new tax in addition to the one approved earlier to pay for a second judge.
“It’s one of the options that was presented to us by the jail study committee and I know my thoughts throughout the process in trying to take care of some of the jail issues that we’ve been working on for the recent past is trying to do what we need to do to meet state standards and state regulations without causing any kind of a tax burden on the people of Loudon County,” Steve Harrelson, commission chairman, said.
Commissioner Van Shaver said one concern he had was while some have considered the additional tax a “user’s fee,” people needing to use the courts for simple reasons will be the ones penalized.
“When we’re told about this, it’s just going to apply to the people who use the judicial system and then it gets convoluted in saying kind of the bad guys, the people who get arrested, the people who get in trouble, and that’s fine except historically and factually with record we can prove those people rarely pay their fees, fines and bills and that’s why they keep getting picked up and put back in jail — failure to pay court costs, failure to pay fines and so on and so forth,” Shaver said. “So those people generally don’t pay anyhow. If they claim indigent status, they never have to pay.
“But if you or I go the Justice Center, if you have a child custody issue, if you have a property issue, if you have a speeding ticket, whatever it is, this $50 will be applied to every user of the court system regardless of what your circumstances are,” he added. “... It’s so expensive to go down there and even file a case with Loudon County because our fees and fines are so high.”
Shaver said he believes property taxpayers are already paying for services.
“They’re paying property taxes for services and one of those services is our court system and our judicial system and our law enforcement system and every other system that the county government provides its citizens that should be paid for by our taxes we already pay,” Shaver said. “The folks going to court, under Russ’ (Johnson) opinion, they’re going to pay a second user fee. They’re going to pay the property tax and they’re going to pay a user fee at the courthouse, so I don’t even buy into this whole it’s just going to affect the people that use the court system.”
Loudon County Mayor Rollen “Buddy” Bradshaw said the county needs to leave its options open.
“If commission even chose to do the extra litigation tax, do we have to do the full $50?” Bradshaw said. “Is that part of the (Tennessee Code Annotated) — would that be an option? Could we do a — if we needed some extra funding for it, could we a $20-$25 extra fee on it?”
Shaver said he opposed the tax under all circumstances.
“That would be $100 we’ve added to the current litigation costs,” Shaver said.

Another way to pay?

Shaver presented commission an alternative that could pay for a $1 million-$10 million project without additional taxes.
In 2018, the county will free up $400,000 of general service debt, and an additional $275,000 will be available in 2020. Shaver said freed up money in addition to a little extra to cover the difference until 2020 could make a project up to $10 million feasible.
“It’s affordable, it doesn’t require anybody to pay any additional fees, taxes, it doesn’t put a burden on our general fund, and it solves all of the pressing problems that we’ve been told over and over are faced at the jail, which is overcrowding, officer safety and classification,” Shaver said. “We eliminate all of the problems we’ve been told that are at the jail.”
Although a number of areas could be considered, such as taking 2 cents out of the Loudon County Board of Education debt service, a number of payment in lieu of tax agreements or even the county general fund, Shaver noted the main area to look at would be the courthouse and jail maintenance fund, which brings in $124,000 annually and currently has $414,000 in its fund balance.
“The courthouse and jail maintenance fund is ideally suited for this first of all because it can be used for debt service,” he said. “It’s a current fee that’s already being charged.”
A project up to $10 million could be possible, Bradshaw said, noting he wants to ensure any addition is not a “Band-Aid” but a long-term solution.
Michael Brady Inc., representative David Matlock, who was present at last week’s workshop, said his firm would need to get with the jail committee to start making cuts on the design to fit $10 million.
No meeting date was set as of Friday, Bradshaw said.
“I think it’s something we definitely need to explore,” Harrelson said. “My hopes are that we definitely can do an addition to the existing jail facility that will provide us enough bed space to meet state standards, take care of officer safety, take care of classification, those things that we really need to address. I’m hoping $10 million or less that we can attain that goal, and if that’s the case, then we can do that and pay it with debt that we’re getting ready to pay off next year and in 2020. So we could potentially do that without any additional tax increase on the people of Loudon County.”
Commissioners Bill Satterfield and Leo Bradshaw during last week’s workshop questioned being able to complete the project for just $10 million.
Shaver said the county does have room to go slightly higher, but up to $10 million would give a “ballpark figure” to consider moving forward.
“I don’t think the requirements, the technological requirements that you have to put in a jail for monitoring prisoners and safety and all (is affordable for $10 million),” Satterfield said during the workshop. “I’m like Leo — there’s a difference in building just square feet building classrooms and building a jail that has to meet requirements.”