DAYTON, Tenn. - Rhea County commissioners Saturday took preliminary steps toward building a new jail in downtown Dayton, despite objections from the sheriff and cautions that there is no money to build anything.
Commissioners voted 7-1 for the finance committee to secure a review of county-owned property adjacent to the existing jail. They asked for it to be completed within 90 days.
Commissioner Ron Masterson said while he favors building a justice center, with space for courtrooms and clerks' offices, a less-costly option is necessary.
"Sheriff [Mike] Neal has expressed many times our need for additional space. I feel like we have got to do something for the sheriff [that is] not a huge financial burden," Masterson said.
"The sheriff has expressed that we would be throwing money away downtown, but I feel we can't do a $15 million project," the estimated cost for a justice center on a new site, he said.
"The courthouse may have security issues and may have to be overhauled for security. But if we don't do something for the sheriff, we may lose certification."
Commissioner Bill Hollin said projections indicate Rhea County's population will grow only slightly in the coming decade, so "we're only going to have to have less than 200 [jail] beds."
Commissioner Tracy Taylor voted no. Commissioner Tom Smith, saying that "building a jail on 1.6 acres is the most stupid thing we can do," left the meeting before the vote.
Neal, during the public comment period, laced into the commission for wasting money and unnecessary delays.
"We've done this [study] over and over and over. You've voted to do nothing again. You've spent $270,000 [on studies] that I could be using to build a jail with. I'm not going to spend any more money."
Previous studies have been paid for with funds generated by litigation taxes reserved for courthouse improvements.
Neal said the commission faces a $1.2 million budget shortfall for the coming year.
"It will take a $50 wheel tax or a 25-cent property tax increase just to take care of the budget. And next year you've got to come back and raise taxes 11 cents to take care of debt. Where's money for the jail?
"All you have to do is buy this property [north of Dayton on Manufacturer's Road] and get the state off our butts for a year and a half," Neal said.
By that time, he said, the budget problems could be addressed and funding planned for a new jail or justice center.
"I've told you how I can pay for a justice center, but I can't do it downtown. Right now, you're putting up a smokescreen. The architect said it's not feasible to do this downtown; there's no place for growth," Neal said.
"You're trying to blame me for a wheel tax. There's nothing you're going to do for me for a year or two because you're broke."