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County Mayor Jim Coppinger comments during the meeting. Listening in the background is County Attorney Rheubin Taylor. The Hamilton County Commission listened to a presentation and recommendations for short and long-term jail and workhouse overcrowding at the Wednesday meeting in the Hamilton County Courthouse on August 29, 2017.
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It's a new day for the Silverdale Correctional Facility and CoreCivic, the contractor that operates it on behalf of Hamilton County.

On Wednesday, the Hamilton County Commission voted 8-0 to end Silverdale's life as the county workhouse — transferring control to the sheriff's office and entering into a new agreement with the private corrections provider. The move marks the first step in phasing out the downtown Chattanooga jail, with an eye toward expanding inmate capacity at Silverdale and reducing overcrowding.

The initial Silverdale expansion, which calls for an additional 128 beds, is expected to cost between $20 million and $30 million and was a factor in a tax increase also approved Wednesday by the county commission.

Before the commission voted, Commissioner Greg Martin asked Mayor Jim Coppinger to assure the commission of the "overwhelming necessity" for the measures.

Coppinger revealed some of the blunt individual discussions he had with commissioners concerning their choices when it came to finding — and funding — viable jail solutions.

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"It could be catastrophic in the fact that a federal judge could walk in here tomorrow and tell the commission it has three to five years to build a new jail or justice center," Coppinger said.

When the county explored the cost of a whole new jail, that figure came out to $132 million, he said. To pay for that, the county would have to approve a tax hike about three times what it faced Wednesday.

As part of the new CoreCivic agreement, the county approved a general fund transfer of $15.5 million to the sheriff's department, which is now responsible for paying the company (formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America). In recent years, the CoreCivic costs to the county, based on the number of inmates held each day, ranged between $13 million and $14 million a year.

Coppinger has said the uptick in price comes down to increased salary costs for CoreCivic.

"We're a victim of our own success," Coppinger said in an earlier meeting, citing local economic conditions driving the need for increasingly competitive salaries for the company.

Sheriff Jim Hammond, also in a previous meeting, described the plan as a way to avoid the mistake of making a high- dollar commitment for what may turn out to be a short-term solution, citing initiatives seeking to divert mental health inmates from correctional facilities. Such efforts have the potential to reduce the inmate population on the front end, he said.

Contact staff writer Paul Leach at 423-757-6481 or pleach@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @pleach_tfp.

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