"If we save money and a private operator makes money, that's a win-win," Commissioner Joe Graham said. "Profit is not a bad word."
The vote was to pay Public Financial Management Inc. $30,000 a month for up to seven months to identify and negotiate with private prison operators. The resolution includes a bonus of up to $250,000 if the county signs a contract with a private provider.
That fact disturbs Commissioner Tim Boyd, who cast the "no" vote and asked numerous questions of the consultant, Public Financial Management Inc., county staff and County Mayor Jim Coppinger.
Boyd has consistently cast doubt on claims a private operator can save millions of dollars to build and run the new jail that everyone agrees the county desperately needs. He got few answers when he asked Coppinger on Wednesday exactly where those savings would come from.
Coppinger said that offering specifics "may hinder some of the negotiations," but he insisted the savings are there. Last week, he said a private company could build the prison for less than the county would pay, and a private operator also would pay property taxes. It's been pointed out that county pay and benefits are richer than those offered by private operators.
He said the county has saved millions through its 31-year contract with Corrections Corporation of America to run the Silverdale Detention Center.
"The whole point of doing this project is to minimize the taxpayers' having to pay for this," he said.
For the most part, commissioners agreed, saying county staff and Coppinger had briefed them and answered their questions. However, Commissioner Greg Beck spoke for several when he said current employees must be protected.
"You might say that's going to happen, but I don't believe it," Beck said.
The resolution commits PFM to find and negotiate with private operators, but "we're not anywhere near an outcome," said Tom Morsch, managing director.
Coppinger emphasized it will still be the commission's decision once PFM has gathered all the information.
Also Wednesday, Beck voted against a $7.4 million contract for J&J Contractors Inc. to build an addition and renovate other space at Wolftever Creek Elementary. At last week's agenda session and again at the voting meeting, Beck complained he has asked repeatedly for an overall school facilities spending plan and still hasn't been given one.
"I'm suspending my voting on any construction for schools until I get that list," he said.
Chairman Chester Bankston said he's been promised the list will be turned over within another week or so.
The vote to give J&J the contract passed 8-1.
Commissioners passed their usual sprinkling of "discretionary" allocations — about $40,000 all told for local recreation leagues, improvements at an Alton Park playground, an anti-gang initiative and a $2,500 grant to Olivet Baptist Church.
And they voted 7-2 in favor of a resolution supporting state legislation that would allow EPB and other municipal providers to provide broadband Internet in areas outside their defined service boundaries. Marion and Bradley County leaders have approved similar legislation and several regional municipalities are considering it.
Commissioners Jim Fields and Warren Mackey cast the "no" votes. The vote puts Hamilton County on the side of providing high-speed Internet as a utility, rather than at the decision of private providers such as AT&T and Comcast.
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6416.