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Referendum on new jail may be on March ’19 ballots

By Walter Geiger The Lamar County commission has about 90-120 days to decide whether to place a referendum for the construction of a new jail on special election ballots in March, 2019. That information arose from a workshop the commissioners held Friday on the matter at which Corky Welch and Amy Bell of Goodwyn, Cawood and Mills were on hand. Bell is the lead architect for the project. County manager Bob Zellner told the commission the current jail was built in 1994 and consists of 22,413 square feet. It was targeted at a 2015 strategic planning session along with the health department as the county buildings that most needed replacement. A $750,000 CDBG grant has been received for a new health department and ground should be broken on that project in about two months, Zellner said. The investigative grand juries in 2014 and 2017 both recommended replacing the current jail. The bond issue for the project would be $14.7 – $15 million and has to be approved by the voters. ‘We want to bond an adequate amount. We may not need it all but we can’t go back and get more,’ commissioner Nancy Thrash said. Zellner noted that interest rates are low now and increases along with inflation will make the project more expensive every year it is delayed. ’We also must face the possibility that the federal courts could step in and tell us ‘˜Your jail is not up to the standards we need for our illustrious prisoners’,’ Zellner added. Sheriff Brad White reported the committee planning the project had visited jails in Oconee and Upson County and favors the pod design. That would allow one jailer in an elevated platform to watch 96 prisoners at once with two prisoners per cell in a 10,000 square foot pod. The site would be laid out so as to allow for the construction of another pod in the future. The current jail is poorly designed. The investigations division has never had offices in the building and the patrol division uses part of what was designed as a lobby. Sheriff White said 1275 prisoners were processed at the jail last year and he expects that number to rise to 1400 this year. ‘Those prisoners’ mission in life is to tear up the jail,’ Zellner added. The pod design will put an end to all that. ‘I sat in one of those cells in Oconee County and I couldn’t find anything to tear up,’ Welch said. The jail will be built on the site of the current rodeo arena. That facility was supposed to have been moved years ago and a suitable site is being sought. The current jail site could be used for the construction of a new courthouse in the future. Current estimates are it would take $2 – $3.1 million in renovations just to bring the current courthouse up to code, Zellner said. All were in agreement it was too late to get the referendum on the November ballot so March, 2019 is the target. If voters approve, the project could be bonded next summer and a builder hired by the end of the year. Under the best case scenario, construction could begin in early 2020.

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