Many people in Guilford County were stunned when 24-year Republican Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes was defeated by Democratic challenger Danny Rogers, and the shockwaves of that election continue to rumble through Guilford County government.
County officials say that a number of Sheriff’s Department projects that were getting underway may now be put on hold and there could also be an exodus of officers who were loyal to Barnes and who are skeptical about serving under Rogers.
Barnes – who had very strong ties with state government and state law enforcement agencies – had been working closely with the state and others to get a DNA crime lab in Guilford County since wait times for the state lab’s results are astronomical. However, Barnes said right after the election results were in that, now, that DNA lab might fall through.
Another project that seemed ready to move forward was the relocation of the Sherriff’s Department’s administrative headquarters at 400 W. Washington St. to the old jail on the same block once renovations to the jail building took place.
Now it’s not clear if that’s going to happen. The Board of Commissioners put the project on hold when the price tag came in at $17 million, and with the sudden change at the top of the Sheriff’s Department, that hold could become permanent.
Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Alan Branson said there are a lot of new factors to consider now that there’s a new sheriff.
“I’m not sure the support is there to move it forward,” Branson said of the jail renovation plans.
Rogers has been a big critic of Barnes and of the way he runs the department, and several county commissioners said they wanted to see how all of this shakes out before moving ahead with a huge multimillion-dollar project like the renovation of the old jail.
One Guilford County official said two days after the election, “I think there is probably a mass exodus at HR right now as we speak.”
The Sheriff’s Department was already having trouble keeping officers and filling positions before the election. Barnes often pointed out that deputy pay is higher in other nearby county sheriff’s departments and city police departments. That was true for a department that had had the same leadership for nearly a quarter of a century – and this radical change at the helm is expected to cause a good number of deputies and other staff to take early retirement or seek more lucrative employment elsewhere.
There are other factors at play as well. For instance, Branson said that he and Rogers had not talked about plans for the headquarters.
“There’s been no communication with him,” Branson said.
Commissioner Skip Alston, a Democrat who said he was pleased to see Rogers elected, said that he had spoken with Rogers after the election and said that Rogers did want to move forward with the old jail renovation and use the jail as the department’s headquarters.
“This move is for all the officers, for everyone – not for BJ,” Alston said.
Alston said it is fine that many Barnes’ loyalists will resign or retire early.
“That’s the way it should be,” Alston said, adding that it would be a way for Rogers to get more people in who align with his philosophy of law enforcement.
Commissioner Jeff Phillips said he already had major questions about the plans to renovate the old jail, even before this new turn of events.
“It started at $8.5 million,” he said, adding that now estimates had ballooned to more than double that price.
He added that the jail was dismal on the inside and didn’t seem like a good place for the Sheriff’s Department’s headquarters. He also said that he believed the majority of commissioners were now likely opposed to the move.
Commissioner Hank Henning, like Phillips, said the huge price tag was a key concern of his.
“The bids came in higher than we imagined, and I’m just not comfortable with that,” Henning said.
The board was set to discuss the matter and possibly approve funding at a Thursday, Nov. 15 meeting, but with everything in transition many sources in Guilford County government say the project will be put on hold rather than moved to the next stage.