published Thursday, January 16th, 2014

Year's first Hamilton County Commission meeting brings video visitation to jail

The Hamilton County Jail
The Hamilton County Jail
Photo by WRCB-TV Channel 3 /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

In other business, commissioners:

• Approved a $180,000 settlement with former health department employee Nancy Beckham, who sued the county for wrongful termination.

• Signed off on a $23 million contract with Tri-Con to build East Brainerd Elementary School.

• Agreed to continue to pay the county's Nashville lobbyist, Will Denami, $20,000 a year for his services.

• Gave the nod to a $585,700 contract with Helton Construction Co. to build the county a new emergency vehicle storage building.

For its first full meeting of 2014, the Hamilton County Commission approved a measure to bring internet visitations to the county jail, OK'd the minimum bids for 112 county properties up for auction and grabbed the last few pieces of land for the next section of the Tennessee Riverwalk.

On Wednesday, commissioners gave their blessings to an agreement with EdgeAccess, a Tampa, Fla., company that will install computer monitors in the Hamilton County Jail and will operate a Web-based video chat system that will allow residents to visit inmates via the internet. But it won't be free. Residents will pay 60 cents a minute to video chat with inmates from the comfort of their homes -- or public libraries. That means a full 30-minute visit -- the maximum allowed at the jail -- will cost $18.

Under the agreement, the company will install 72 shatterproof video terminals. The bulk of those, 58, will be installed in jail cells, so officers would not have to move inmates to different parts of the jail. Ten will be placed in the jail lobby for residents who don't want to pay to see their loved ones. The rest will be mobile units that officers can wheel around to higher-security cells.

Commissioner Joe Graham, chairman the body's finance committee, said the move will be a boon to officers.

"The sheriff and his staff have been working for many years now to find a safer way to conduct visitation, and the finance committee believes they've done that," Graham said.

Commissioner Greg Beck, who is currently a court officer and has a background in law enforcement, told Sheriff Jim Hammond he lauded the move.

"Because I've been there and I've had to handcuff and leg iron 12 prisoners -- and I don't know who might have gotten mad the night before and wants to take it out on me," Beck said. "The fact that this is in place for my officers over there, I applaud you for that."

Under the four-year agreement, EdgeAccess will pocket the first $42,000 gained from the visits, then it will give 30 percent of proceeds to the county. The agreement also allows for two one-year renewals.

If the county decides not to renew in four years, the company will remove the equipment.

Commissioners also approved the 112-item list of delinquent properties -- those with outstanding back taxes.

Included on the list were two school system properties: the old Ooltewah Elementary School at 9232 Lee Highway, which closed in May, and Summit Head Start building at 4821 Pattentown Road.

The low bid for Ooltewah Elementary School is $2.2 million, and it's $50,000 for the Summit building.

Graham said those values seem low, but he expects the ultimate sale price will be closer to the market value of the properties.

Mayor Jim Coppinger said the county doesn't have to sell if it gets only low-ball offers.

"There's a lot of interest from the community concerned with the low bids," Coppinger said. "If it doesn't bring the amount of money we expect, we are not obligated to sell."

The commission also unanimously approved five resolutions that will ensure construction for the next segment of the Tennessee Riverwalk will stay on schedule.

Commissioners approved a 30-year lease and two license agreements with Norfolk Southern Railway to get access to land the county needs for the Riverwalk extension to St. Elmo.

The county and city will jointly pay $4,200 a year to the company, with hopes of one day buying the land.

The county will also pay Norfolk Southern $515,638 over 30 years for rights-of-way over railway tracks on the property.

Commissioners also passed two easements with PSC Metals for $167,175, an easement with the city of Chattanooga at no cost and a $30,000 easement with CSX Transportation to secure the rest of the land.

Eighty percent of the easement and rights-of-way costs will come from federal funds through the Tennessee Department of Transportation and 20 percent would come from private funding, according to resolution documents.

County Public Works Administrator Todd Leamon said the construction process can begin in March.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6481.

about Louie Brogdon...

Louie Brogdon began reporting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in February 2013. Before he came to the Scenic City, Louie lived on St. Simons Island, Ga. and covered crime, courts, environment and government at the Brunswick News, a 17,000-circulation daily on the Georgia coast. While there, he was awarded for investigative reporting on police discipline and other law enforcement issues by the Georgia Press Association. For the Times Free Press, Louie covers Hamilton County ...

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