Rupert Howell’s column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Supervisors’ decision to construct new addition to county jail moved hastily

Panola citizens got a short notice by the board of supervisors’ hasty decision to build a $4.5 million expansion to the county  jail.

It’s not that the need isn’t there–it’s the way the decision was made.

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The proposed addition was first made public when a  quorum of supervisors met with other officials and representatives of Benchmark Construction Corporation, the development company responsible for the existing facility, at Panola Country Club on June 26.

The following Monday, July 2, supervisors approved resolutions moving the process forward. Last Wednesday, August 1, they approved the addition.

But Panola County Administrator David Chandler said that he had been doing research for the board since September of last year.

The board will go through a non-profit organization consisting of themselves and obtain a certificate of  participation.

This process allows the non-profit to lease the facility back to the county which will pay the non-profit a lease payment equal to the bond payment owed by the non-profit.

Benchmark will likely serve as general contractor during the no bid process, as it did when the original facility was erected, often using local builders as sub-contractors.

This method has been used for the past 20 years or so to construct jails, libraries, post offices and other public buildings.

Once the job is complete, the county gets the “keys” and then  the annual lease payment of $371,000 begins.

Board of Supervisor president Robert Avant said earlier that the formalities were a repeat of action taken when the facility was built in the mid-90s.

But it wasn’t. When the original jail was built, there was public input from an appointed committee, many of the members once opponents of a proposed jail, and studies to determine overall county and municipal  needs of a detention center.

The studies included projected juvenile and female incarceration rates, which has been only vaguely addressed with the current proposal.

The need to adequately house mentally ill patients until they can be put into a more suitable facility was also only vaguely addressed.

These problems didn’t just come up.

We need our boards and representatives to plan for the future and offer more than a quick fix that only offers the  “band-aid for now” approach.

On the bright side, (no pun intended), representatives from Benchmark have used the David M. Bryan Detention Center as a model for what they can offer and stated that the existing facility is in as good shape as it was when it opened in 1996.

The fuss should not be about jail expansion – the building was designed for additional pods.

But is enough being built, for the right reason, for the right people, at the right price, at the right time?