Rhea moves forward with plan to convert old hospital into new jail

Rhea County commissioners voted 8-1 Tuesday night to authorize an architect to move forward with plans to convert the former Rhea Medical Center building at Rhea County Highway and Walnut Grove Church Road into a 275-bed jail and justice center.
Rhea County commissioners voted 8-1 Tuesday night to authorize an architect to move forward with plans to convert the former Rhea Medical Center building at Rhea County Highway and Walnut Grove Church Road into a 275-bed jail and justice center.

DAYTON, Tenn. - The old Rhea Medical Center property on the north end of Dayton has been marked for conversion into a new justice center by the Rhea County Commission.

In two motions last week, commissioners voted 8-1 to sell the 7.4-acre tract on Manufacturers Road that would have been the site of a brand-new facility, and to authorize an architectural firm to draw up plans to repurpose the old hospital.

County leaders have worked for years to solve overcrowding at the jail and problems associated with the historic but aging Rhea County Courthouse.

Commissioners instructed the Mt. Juliet, Tenn.-based architectural firm Kaatz, Binkley, Jones, Morris to convert most of the existing hospital building into space for court operations, the sheriff's department and a 275-bed jail.

District 2 Commissioner Jim Reed, who is jail committee chairman, said the panel unanimously recommended reusing the hospital because it answers jail and courthouse problems and protects taxpayers from possible litigation costs if a lawsuit were filed over jail conditions.

Reed said he wasn't comfortable giving cost estimates until full plans are presented, but commissioners on Oct. 20 voted 8-1 to set aside $300,000 a year for debt service for the work.

District 9 Commissioner Bill Davault was the lone opposing vote on all the jail-related measures. Davault said the jail project, added to other county debt, is too much of a burden on taxpayers. Including the most recent expenditures and a note on the new hospital which he said the county co-signed, a $10 million to $12 million jail project could raise the county's debt to $100 million or more, Davault said.

"That means that every man, woman and child in this county will be in debt over $3,000," said Davault, who noted that 22 percent of Rhea County residents live in poverty and 12 percent are unemployed.

The solution "is to quit borrowing until we pay it down," Davault said.

The 87-bed jail downtown is overcrowded and has been threatened with decertification by the Tennessee Corrections Institute. The Times Free Press reported in 2010 inspectors noted overcrowding and regular head counts hovering between 100 and 130.

On court days, inmates must be walked through a parking lot and across Court Street to the historic courthouse, where they still have to mount steps or ride an elevator to reach courtrooms on the upper levels.

Reed said security is a serious concern where those inmates come in contact with the public.

"When you're in Rhea County it's so hard not to remember Cotton Morgan at the courthouse in Kingston," Reed said. He referred to the gunning down of Roane County jail guard Wayne "Cotton" Morgan during an escape on Aug. 9, 2005.

Morgan was leading inmate George Hyatte to a van for return to Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary when Hyatte's wife, former prison nurse Jennifer Hyatte, fired from ambush. Morgan was killed and another guard injured. The Hyattes were captured the next day in Ohio.

Rhea Sheriff Mike Neal said smart planning could lighten the burden on taxpayers and offset some operational costs. And some of the leftover space in the former hospital possibly could be rented for income.

Neal said revenue generated by holding state inmates for the next three years or so - now about $28 a day per prisoner - combined with the $300,000-a-year debt service and court fees earmarked for a new justice center and for court security could reduce the cost of the jail from a taxpayer perspective to $1.5 million for the first five years.

Rhea County now gets about $100,000 a year in state inmate fees. A 275-bed jail could dramatically increase that sum, because the state rate will rise $37 per day per inmate, he said.

Neal doesn't plan to "take in inmates from all over the state" but Rhea County's own inmates sentenced to state prison can stay in their home county and generate revenue, he said.

Neal said the already earmarked money will cover the first payments on the note, salaries for 12 to 15 additional correctional officers and other start-up costs so the justice center can get going without the threat of a property tax hike.

Zak Kramer and Courtney Thurman, who were walking in downtown Dayton on Tuesday, liked the idea of an alternative to building an all-new jail.

"I think it's a good idea," Thurman said.

"Especially considering how much the jail is occupied," Kramer said. "The jail's already pretty packed. And it'll probably cost less money [to renovate the old hospital] and you wouldn't have to buy new land."

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@times freepress.com or twitter.com/BenBenton or www.facebook.com/ben.benton1 or 423-757-6569.

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