DAYTON, Tenn. — Rhea County commissioners have approved a loan that includes $22 million to convert the county's old hospital into a new 94,000-square foot justice center to house a 290-bed jail, a sheriff's office and court operations.
Rhea County Commission chairman Jim Reed said last week that the papers have been signed, adding, "We have started the demo portion, we've put in a retaining wall in the back, we are starting the actual dirt work and the infrastructure for our utilities is going in and then we'll start the actual construction phase in the process."
He said the new justice center could be finished in 18-24 months.
RHEA COUNTY PROPERTY TAX RATES 2004-18
*Does not include minicipal rates.
2016-Current: $2.1966 per $100 of assessed value
Source: Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury property tax records
The price tag for the project is estimated at $22 million, but Reed said the loan the commission approved includes another $3 million loan already secured for initial site and demolition work at the old Rhea Medical Center campus at Rhea County Highway and Walnut Grove Church Road. The vote on the loan was unanimous.
The new jail and justice center facility will replace the aging, overcrowded 88-bed jail and cramped sheriff's office behind the historic Rhea County Courthouse in downtown Dayton. It'll also give the historic 1891-era courthouse's court operations a modern, safer home, officials said.
The old county jail was decertified in 2011 for overcrowded conditions and recertified in 2012 under new guidelines created to help counties struggling to meet state standards. In June 2017, with the out-of-date jail packed with more than 200 inmates, state officials ordered the county to reduce its inmate population by 50 percent and to fix its overcrowding problems.
Officials eyed the medical center property and other land for a few years before setting their sights in 2015 on conversion of the old hospital, which offered a building site, adaptable structures and a large parking area. Portions of the old hospital date back to the 1950s or 1960s.
The as-yet unanswered question is whether there'll be a property tax increase and, if so, how much it will be, Reed said.
Reed said loans for capital projects such as school construction are either active or nearly paid off, and that it's too soon to make a call on a property tax hike until the impact of the justice center loan is known.
"Until you get down to the very end and the nitty-gritty, you don't know where you're at," he said. "We don't have a true-cut line of where we stand.
"At this time, I cannot say that there will be a tax increase coming for this project," Reed said.
Harold Fisher, budget committee chairman and the commissioner for District 3, said county finances are being scrutinized now in the preparation of the annual budget.
"We'll know more in a few more days," he said Wednesday. "We're trying to get our budget finalized and then we'll know where we're at."
Fisher noted that the county is now spending $800,000-$900,000 a year just housing its extra inmates in other counties' jails. Associated costs, related to the 2017 order to reduce the jail's population, also create significant transportation costs in hauling Rhea County inmates to and from court for hearings.
"If we can stop that bleed, then that's going to help a whole bunch," Fisher said.
Contact Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.