Sgt. Jake Miller walks the corridor inside the Rhea County Jail in Dayton, Tenn., where at least 15 male inmates reside. Currently, officials continue the debate over the jail's expansion or building a justice center off-site. Photo by Kimberly McMillian
DAYTON, Tenn. — Rhea County officials will consult with financial advisers including the state comptroller of the treasury to see how much they can borrow to solve jail and court overcrowding and security problems.
Meeting in workshop session Wednesday, commissioners asked Finance Director Bill Graham to seek guidance from state officials before committing to a course of action.
"We know there is a need," Commissioner Ron Masterson said. "We have to figure out how we can pay for this. Before I feel like we're ready to go off [the current jail] site, I'd like to get a demonstration that says 'this is ridiculous.'
"I see advantages to the downtown [current] site. We can build now and eliminate overcrowding for inmates. It doesn't do a lot for courtroom or office space," he said. "We wouldn't have to build any courtrooms. In my opinion, we have to borrow something under $10 million [to avoid an] outrageous property tax or wheel tax."
County Executive George Thacker said he has spoken with loan officers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and was told the county could borrow at 3.5 percent interest for up to 38 years.
Graham said a justice center, estimated at $15 million, would cost the county about $714,000 per year to finance at that rate.
Sheriff Mike Neal told commissioners, "If you look at what I proposed, it would leave the county $200,000 per year to build a justice center and fix the courts."
He has told commissioners that by housing state prisoners he could increase revenue by about $511,000 per year, which could be used to pay for the facility.
But Commissioner Bill Hollin objected, saying he spoke with officials in Nashville on Wednesday and was told the state is proposing to add 500 beds to a prison near Pikeville, Tenn., next year, cutting the need for jail space.
Neal responded, "They have told us they will continue to leave state prisoners in local jails."
Commission Chairman Jim Reed said, "If he [Neal] can show us where he can come up with a half million dollars, we're talking about a 5 cent [property] tax increase to make the part beyond what the sheriff says he can make."
Neal said to overcome public objections to a jail, "You're going to tell the people you are doing the right thing for the county. If you build downtown, in 10 years you're going to have to abandon it. You're going to tell people that 10 years from now it won't hold half of the people we will have to hold. Every penny you put into the downtown block you will walk off and abandon 10 years from now.
"I'm at 170 prisoners now," Neal said. "I guarantee that if you build 250 beds, it will be full unless you build a skyscraper."
Tom is the director of public information at Bryan College and has been in the Dayton community for 30 years.