Usually, once the Guilford County commissioners make a decision and vote on something, they stop talking about it – but that hasn’t been the case with the board’s Thursday, March 21 decision to spend $12 million to build a new building for the Sheriff’s Department’s administrative operations rather than renovate the old jail at a cost of about $20 million.
The board voted unanimously to go with the new building, but it became clear soon after the votes were cast that the commissioners, Sheriff’s Department officials and others in the debate had plenty to say about the decision after the fact.
Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioner Alan Branson was obviously a very reluctant yes vote. He pointed out before the vote at the work session that the Board of Commissioners had already spent about $425,000 on architectural and design work to renovate the old jail and he reiterated that now the county and its taxpayers would have to eat that expense. Branson also pointed out during and after the work session that renovating the old jail would have given the county 90,000 square feet, but building a new building, he added, is only going to provide 35,000 square feet.
Branson voted with the other members of the board, perhaps for unanimity, but there was no question afterward that he had serious concerns about the decision. He said that now the county will have to find a home for other county services that could have been put into the old jail if it had been renovated.
“I almost voted against it,” Branson said this week of building the new headquarters for the Sheriff’s Department.
“I agree there’s a problem with the ceiling heights, and I agree that it was built in the ‘70s, but everything in it after the renovation would be new,” he said.
The chairman added that the old jail would be a stronger structure than a new one.
“The new building won’t be a Cat-4 building like the old jail,” Branson said, referring to a scale that measures a building’s capacity to survive severe weather and other threats.
“But the bottom line is square footage,” he said. “You’re talking about 35,000 square feet versus 90,000.”
Commissioner Jeff Phillips, who’s usually on the same page as Branson, was clearly one of the key advocates for constructing a new building rather than renovating the old jail. He took his comments public on his Facebook Page this week.
“We saved millions when we rejected the bid to retrofit the old jail several months ago,” he wrote, “I was, and still am, adamantly opposed to sinking upwards of $20 million into that creepy old facility (many other adjectives come to mind, but I will refrain).”
Phillips also wrote, “We finally settled on a more modern, efficient, and much less expensive alternative for our citizens. The new Law Enforcement Center administrative offices will also include an extension of the security tunnel and will provide more adequate parking for citizens and Sheriff’s Department’s administrative staff.”
He stated that it “remains a mystery,” why this decision wasn’t part of the project to build a new jail years ago,” and he added, “We’re finally on our way to making it right for our citizens. Add this to the long list of responsible, long-overdue, and much-needed citizen-focused decisions by this board over the past 6 years.”
Former Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes said years ago, when the jail was constructed, that administrative offices in the building weren’t included in order to cut the cost of that project which ran north of $90 million.
Phillips also stated that the decision to build a new building rather than renovate the old jail didn’t hinge one way or another on the fact that Guilford County has a new sheriff.
“To be clear, this outcome was not a political statement,” Phillips wrote. “This process has been ongoing for the better part of two years and last November’s election outcome had little to do with our decision.”
He added that the completion of this project will resolve “tons of long-standing logistical issues” for both the Sheriff’s Department and the citizens for decades to come.
After the Board of Commissioners March 21 vote, the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department put out a press release that stated, “We’re saving TAXPAYERS approximately 5 million dollars!” It explained that, originally, the projected cost for the renovation of the old jail was $17 million (that estimate was bumped up later), and the new building would cost about $5 million less.
Branson has argued that the project will not bring any savings when it’s all said and done; other commissioners said this week that money was saved, but, if so, it was the commissioners who did the saving.
At the work session, Guilford County Sheriff Danny Rogers argued that the county should build a three-story, rather than two-story, building – something that would add about $2 million to the cost of the new building.