Is it a $27 million boondoggle? Or is it a long-overdue essential facility?
Depending on your sympathies and point of view, the detention -center/public safety complex may be either one.
Opponents and supporters were -vociferous in expressing themselves Monday night when the Moore County Board of Commissioners held a public hearing. Including a special 15-minute presentation by a key critic, the hearing itself and awarding of the contract, the subject claimed almost two and a half hours of the board meeting.
Opponents tossed out such language as "false pretenses," "bogus appraisals," "smell test" and "Mafia."
It was the first public hearing held on the subject and came too late to satisfy critics, for later in the same meeting the commissioners voted - again 3-2 - to award the $27.2 million contract to low bidder D.H. Griffin Construction of Raleigh.
One supporter's main point was validated by the number of bidders for the contract. Thirteen companies submitted bids, the highest topping $29 million.
"The new jail will create jobs," said George W. Little, chairman of the Sandhills Community College board of trustees. "Maybe the contractor and subcontractors will buy locally. This project is a win-win for Moore County. Let's get on with it."
Little also defended the board majority's decision to pay for the building with limited obligation bonds rather than general obligation bonds, which require a referendum.
"I know something about bond issues. You don't want to do a bond issue (referendum) for a jail," said Little, who has managed a series of successful county education bond vote campaigns.
Opponents did not fall short when it came to expressing negative opinions about everything associated with the project.
However, most opponents did not argue against the need for larger jail facilities. Instead, they argued that the building should be erected in another location, a place farther from the center of Carthage, the county seat.
They said the building will be too large for the town's historic downtown, that it is too close to a school athletic field, two churches and the public library, and that it will pose a security risk to children and others gathering in the area.
"I hate this idea. I hate this location. Why did you decide to put such a monstrous thing in the middle of town?" said Elizabeth Brower, who lives on McNeill Street in Carthage.
Libby Moodie, another Carthage resident, called it "irresponsible" to build such a large jail near a school, the library and two churches.
"It will also ruin the charm of a historic town," Moodie said.
Pinehurst resident Ralph Redmond said it's the location, not the jail itself, that most people oppose.
Some of the most moving comments came from Capt. Eddie Johnson, the sheriff's deputy who superintends the jail.
Johnson, speaking on behalf of himself and his 57 employees, begged the commissioners to build a facility that will be safe and more comfortable for his staff.
The original jail, built in 1969 and expanded in 1995, has a number of "blind spots" that make it difficult and potentially dangerous for jailers, he said.
The air-conditioning system is -miserably inadequate, he said, adding that the staff must use fans to keep the temperature down to the 83-degree level required by state law.
"I beg of you," Johnson said. "We've waited long enough. Give my employees a nice safe and secure place to work."
The chief jailer said modern technology in the new jail will enable the staff to keep an eye on all inmates at all times.
Detention Officer Daniel Samuelson called the new facility an investment toward present and future needs, including expansion. The existing 110-bed jail is now often overcrowded, and the staff must provide pallets for inmates to sleep on floors.
"Trust me. We will need it," Samuelson said of the plan designed to allow for future expansion.
Samuelson said that even during summer months, it could be possible to fill up all of the 192 beds proposed for the new facility.
"It's not something we need in the future. It's something we need now," Samuelson said. He noted that his mother and a nephew still live on Carthage's McNeill Street.
John Marcum, leader of the opposing group known as Right2Vote, said he was amazed that the county had not reached a solution about issues concerning the cost of the building and the method of financing. He referred to such things as decisions made under "false pretenses" and to "bogus appraisals" of the property bought for the buildings.
A fellow critic from Pinehurst, Doug Middaugh, questioned the cost of the Moore County project in comparison with similar buildings recently erected in other counties, such as Sampson and Harnett.
Middaugh went a step further and challenged the county plans to use a portion of the bonds to finance utility capital improvements in Pinehurst.
"I feel that this board has an obligation to all Moore County utility (MCU) customers to explain the certain user rate increase that will occur with the $9.2 million added to the MCU rate base for the planned Pinehurst improvements," Middaugh said. "Further, justification should also be provided to the MCU users for the anticipated $1.1 million increased bond interest expense MCU will incur through your mandated limited obligation bond financing for these improvements."
Middaugh said the board, to his knowledge, had not addressed the increased operational and maintenance expenses to be incurred with the opening of the new detention center.
Greg Zywocinski, of Southern Pines, added his support for "my friend John Marcum." He said the entire project "has not passed the smell test" and said the 3-2 votes on issues relating to land purchase, location, design and financing go "beyond outrage."
The project, including cost, location and design, had strong support from several political heavyweights, including three former county commissioners.
Colin McKenzie, of Pinehurst, a former chairman of the board, said he was in on the earliest planning for the jail expansion and said the plans had been thoroughly discussed and aired for a number of years. He was chairman when the board made the decision to buy the 21-acre tract as the site for the jail expansion and other buildings.
"We established a committee of experts to assist and join the sheriff's staff along with other county staff to solve the problem," McKenzie said. "Each commissioner was asked to submit people to serve on this committee."
McKenzie said the committee included such professionals as architects and law-enforcement officials, all "well respected." He recalled that the downtown tract was regarded as the best location because its proximity to the courts facility would reduce cost and ensure safety in transporting prisoners from jail to courtroom.
"That was more than three years ago, and we are still haggling with a small group who want to move the jail and court system away from its present location," McKenzie said. "A few days ago, a friend told me to beware of zealots. They are always around any controversy and will do everything in their power to prevent progress and get recognition. These folks were here three or four years ago."
'Right Thing to Do'
Like McKenzie, Gen. Manila (Bud) Shaver, of Seven Lakes, wanted to know what would happen if the matter were put to a vote and the voters turned down the bond issue, despite the need for an expanded jail.
"I'm speaking on behalf of the law-enforcement officers, judicial officials and others who have been forced to work in substandard quarters. Our county commissioners have a duty to resolve these problems," Shaver said.
Former Commissioners Archie Kelly and David Cummings added their support for improved facilities.
"It is needed," Kelly said. "It's the right thing to do."
Kelly said he agreed with George Little that the community also needs the jobs the project will bring.
"What we're after is safety for the citizens," said Cummings, a former board chairman. "Do the right thing for Moore County."
Cummings expressed admiration for Sheriff Lane Carter and his officers, who "risk their lives every day for our safety."
Carthage Mayor Tom Stewart rebutted accusations that his town board was unaware of plans for a detention center when the town approved a zoning change at the county's request.
"We have followed this for many months," the mayor said. "We think what you have planned is what you should do, and we support it."
Carthage Town Commissioner Jean Riley, who is mayor pro tempore, added her support.
"I think it's just great. Thank you for all you plan," Riley said.
Mary Jo Morris, a Pinehurst resident, said she has followed the county's debates and discussions of the property and the proposed building projects. She urged the county commissioners to continue their effort to build the new jail.
"I know you are men and women of integrity," Morris said.
John Owen, a Pinehurst resident and former Republican Party chairman, said the county is fortunate to have the commissioners serving the county at this time. He now chairs the Airport Authority.
"I urge the board to move forward post haste," Owen said. "Let's build a jail."
Contact Florence Gilkeson at 947-4962 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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