Sheriff Has Land, Needs Building
Guilford County Sherriff BJ Barnes wants to spend an estimated $2.7 million to build what he says is a badly needed new Special Operations Center for his department. And the only thing that might stand in the way of the strong-willed sheriff is the Guilford County Board of Commissioners.
Barnes said he’ll make the request for the $2.7 million at an upcoming meeting, and he added that the commissioners shouldn’t be surprised since, last month, he bought property for that purpose at 508 Industrial Ave. in Greensboro. That land, which is just south of I-40 and just west of old US 421, was bought with money from the sheriff’s federal forfeiture fund for roughly $300,000. It is about a five-minute drive from the current office.
Barnes said the cost is not firm yet and he hoped that in the end it would be less than $2.7 million. He said he had a preliminary estimate that stated the land and building together would be $3 million.
The sheriff’s Special Operations Unit is home to the department’s detectives, as well as its evidence lab, the K-9 unit, the crime suppression division and other special functions of the department.
Barnes said he can’t continue to use the current facility at 2814 Firestone Dr. in south Greensboro because the state is implementing strict new rules for the handling and storage of evidence and for the operation of evidence labs. The sheriff also said the crime unit has outgrown the aging building.
“I’ve explained this to them,” Barnes said.
He added that it doesn’t make sense to continue renting the same building – at about $145,000 a year – nor does it make sense to move to another rented building.
“We don’t need to be moving evidence every year – it could place court cases in jeopardy,” he said.
Barnes said his Special Operations Unit must be in an out-of-the-way location, since undercover officers are constantly going in and out of the building. He said he doesn’t want it to be in an area that’s easily observable by the general public.
Guilford County considered buying that Firestone building but determined earlier this year that it wouldn’t meet the sheriff’s needs given the state’s new rules and regulations.
Barnes also said the current Firestone office is in a flood plane and there have been issues with water damage.
He said that’s why, with the board’s permission, he wants to build the new office for the Special Operations Unit.
“I said I will buy the land using federal forfeiture money,” Barnes said. “I did that in good faith.”
He said he’d done his part by purchasing the land with his department’s funds and now the only question is where to get the $2.7 million to build the building.
The Guilford County commissioners have been trying to avoid issuing new bonds, which add to the county’s debt, but the Sheriff’s Department has a lot more bonds to issue for law enforcement capital needs if the sheriff can convince the commissioners to let him spend that money. In May 2008, the citizens approved $115 million in bonds for the new jail, but so far the Sheriff’s Department has only spent $91 million, and that surplus can legally be used to build any law enforcement facility as long as the commissioners approve the expenditure.
Guilford County Budget Director Michael Halford confirmed the $91 million.
“That includes furnishings as part of the total construction cost,” Halford said.
That number is surprisingly low given the project’s projected $115 million cost, but Halford said he had double-checked it.
“I don’t see any other expenses for the project charged elsewhere – there shouldn’t be,” Halford said.
Barnes didn’t even realize that the cost of the new jail was so low. When Barnes was asked the total cost of the jail recently, he said he thought it was $96 million, but he added that that number should be confirmed with Halford.
Even with the savings from the new jail, Barnes might have an uphill battle getting the $2.7 million he’s seeking. Barnes, a prominent Republican, has never gotten much love from the current Democratic commissioners on the board, and the Republican commissioners have said they’re reluctant to issue any more bonds than they absolutely have to.
Barnes said he’s hopeful the commissioners will grant his request since last month the board allowed him to use the $300,000 from the department’s federal forfeiture fund to buy land for the new building.
However, Republican Commissioner Jeff Phillips said it’s a request the board will have to examine carefully.
“Just because we agreed to buy the land doesn’t mean we’re in a hurry to build the facility,” Phillips said.
Phillips said Barnes has painstakingly made his case to the commissioners regarding the need for the new building, but the commissioner added that the board needs to carefully examine “timing and circumstances” when it comes to a commitment of that size.
Phillips and other Republican commissioners have also been stating publicly that the board may put off or nix altogether some school construction projects that the schools are ready to request using bond money.
Over the last several years, Barnes has been on something of a real estate acquisition, renovation and building spree. The county has built a giant new jail for Barnes, renovated the High Point jail, and has established two new district offices. Barnes recently spent money from the federal forfeiture funds for district offices in Jamestown and northwestern Guilford County.
Federal forfeiture funds are money that the Sheriff’s Department confiscates in the line of duty, usually from drug dealers. The department also confiscates vehicles and other property that are sold at auction and the money put into the fund.
The commissioners may address the sheriff’s $2.7 million request at a November meeting.
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BY SCOTT D. YOST
October 31, 2013
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