Hamilton County Commission OKs additional $1.1 million for improvements to Silverdale Detention Center

Staff photo / Silverdale Detention Center is seen on Dec. 29, 2020 in Chattanooga.
Staff photo / Silverdale Detention Center is seen on Dec. 29, 2020 in Chattanooga.

Although some county leaders said they would prefer to see the dollars go to schools, upgrades to Silverdale Detention Center will cost another $1.1 million as the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office aims to boost security and add capacity at the jail after taking it over in late 2020.

"I would much rather be putting money in schools, and I think we all would," Hamilton County Commissioner Steve Highlander, R-Ooltewah, said during a meeting Wednesday. "The problem is we don't have a choice. We have got to meet safety standards for our employees and for the prisoners."

On Wednesday, the County Commission increased its contract with construction company KTM Builders LLC by almost $800,000. The company initially won an approximately $20 million contract for the facility expansion in September 2020, and commissioners have since approved four increases to the company's contract, including the one on Wednesday.

The board also authorized an additional $340,000 for Johnson Controls Fire Protection on Wednesday, which received a $6.3 million contract from the county in March 2022 to install new security measures at the jail.

Commissioners approved both resolutions unanimously.

Including the amounts approved Wednesday, Hamilton County has added $2.5 million to KTM Builder's contract since September 2020 and $521,000 to its contract with Johnson Controls Fire Protection, according to resolutions approved by the County Commission.

"These gentlemen have basically rebuilt a moving car on a shoestring," Commissioner Lee Helton, R-East Brainerd, told his colleagues Wednesday, addressing the efforts of the Sheriff's Office. "There are some overruns. It's to be expected. I think they've done a wonderful job."

After the private prison management company CoreCivic officially ended its contract with the county in late 2020, the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office assumed control of Silverdale Detention Center and moved inmates from its now-shuttered downtown jail to the complex.

Under CoreCivic, the detention center held minimum- and medium-security inmates, but with the closure of the downtown jail, officials have had to make improvements to the facility to accommodate maximum-security prisoners.

"In this case, we inherited a facility that ... wasn't maintained to the standard that it needed to be," Sheriff Austin Garrett's chief of staff, Ron Bernard, told commissioners Wednesday. "I feel like this funding is well invested into this facility and we've been very frugal with it."

So far, the roughly $30 million project at the detention center has involved creating a new set of administrative offices, a new booking and intake facility and a new sallyport. Officials are also making improvements to existing cells, adding 128 beds and installing approximately 400-500 new cameras, which will replace aging and inadequate equipment at the jail that is now more than 20 years old.

Bernard said the Sheriff's Office is about a month or two away from completing the existing phase of improvements, although they will likely return to the commission to request assistance with further building needs. That could include additional housing.

Replacing the entire detention center would have likely cost about $250 million, Bernard said, but he estimated the county has so far invested about $40 million into the facility, which includes money leftover from CoreCivic's contract that the county used to replace HVAC units and put new locks on cells.

The county has set aside $30 million worth of bond money for improvements to the detention center. The Sheriff's Office has also dipped into its own capital budget to cover costs.

"There are many unknowns when you're doing a renovation," Bernard said in an interview after the meeting.

Bernard noted that the Sheriff's Office has had to make accommodations to handle different uses for the facility. The county is now booking people 24 hours a day at Silverdale whereas CoreCivic would transfer people from the downtown jail.

"Although some of this has been frustrating, ... I'm glad to see this particular phase coming to an end," Commissioner David Sharpe, D-Red Bank, said during the meeting.

He also urged county officials to be cautious about adding more beds at the facility.

"One thing that has been proven over time is that if you build it, they will come, and the cost of them coming is significant to the taxpayer," Sharpe said, adding that he would prefer to see the county make additional investments in keeping the jail population low.

Commissioner Greg Beck, D-North Brainerd, also had reservations about the idea of expanding the number of beds at Silverdale.

"I think a person needs to be afraid to pick up a gun and shoot somebody," he said. "Silverdale shouldn't be a hotel. It should be hotel hell. ... I know people are getting bad — even women are getting badder than they used to be — but why is there a bottleneck? What's happening that's making our system slow down so much that we've got to even consider adding new beds?"

Contact David Floyd at dfloyd@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.

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