The Hamilton County Commission will vote next week on awarding a contract of more than $20 million to a local construction company to improve the Silverdale Correctional Facility in Chattanooga.
The county is working to merge its two jails, keep inmate counts low and take over the privately operated Silverdale facility.
While the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office prepares to take over the Silverdale facility and close the downtown jail, moving all county jail operations to Silverdale around the end of the year, the commission is being asked to finalize a contract for substantial facility improvements at Silverdale, planned years before the merger.
"Originally, before we knew that [Silverdale operator] CoreCivic was bailing on the contract, these were things that had to be done just for us to move forward," Sheriff Jim Hammond said Wednesday, citing the private company's July decision to terminate a decades-long contract with Hamilton County over daily operating costs.
The just-over-$20-million phase one would include nearly 45,000 additional square feet with new space for holding areas, booking and secure outdoor recreation.
If approved by the commission next week, the bid would go to local commercial construction company KTM Construction, which came in roughly $650,000 lower than the next of five bids to the county.
Commissioner Tim Boyd expressed concerns with the company's qualifications as a primarily big box retail builder taking on a security project.
"I am pretty familiar with KTM. Before they were KTM they were Kuebler Construction, which went out of business in the early 2000s," Boyd, who used to do contracting for the company, said. "I knew that they were primarily big box retailers [and it] struck me as odd that they would be building a correctional institution."
Representatives of the sheriff's office said the specific security specifications of the project would be handled by a third party, Cornerstone Detention Products, which specializes in correctional facility maintenance.
Other commissioners praised the idea of awarding the substantial contract to a local company.
Commissioner Greg Martin asked that someone from county finance or the sheriff's office provide details during the project about how awarding this contract to a local company will benefit the economy.
"It seems like they're a local company, [and] they're going to more than likely be using local people. I just think that would be good information for the citizens to know at some point," Martin said. "I realize that's not a part of the negotiations on the front end, but I just think that's that's helpful information, for the citizens to know that this is something that was a local company, and how maybe it helped our economy a little bit better."
Sheriff's office director of information technology Ron Bernard, described by Hammond as the office's "money man," also mentioned cost savings realized by the department ranging between $300,000 and $700,000 a month since the office began issuing citations in lieu of arrests for minor offenders to keep the jail populations lower during COVID-19. With those savings, Bernard said, the sheriff's office will be able to cover expenses incurred as it assumes control of Silverdale later this year.
"Due to this transition, and we know that we're saving the money on a monthly basis, we're reallocating those savings that we're receiving, or as part of this, to invest in the capital items that we will need to take over the facility," Bernard said. "There are things like computers and vehicles and whatnot that CoreCivic will be taking with them, that they purchase throughout as part of the operations, that we will have to replace. But right now we're still feeling like we're cost neutral and we're going to reallocate those monthly savings to purchase the items that we need."
Separate from the $20 million in scheduled maintenance and the anticipated capital expenses once CoreCivic leaves, the private company will also be performing more than $100,000 in estimated deferred maintenance before the end of the contract in December.
Going forward, Hammond said, he will seek to keep the jail population similarly low, rather than returning to "business as usual."
Hammond also anticipates further operational savings once the cost-neutral merger is complete, since the county will not be paying for day-to-day services at two facilities.
"Our plan is to shut out the lights, turn off the water for the upper floors, consolidate all of our services out of the [downtown] jail, which will be significant savings, where we won't be operating duplication of services, and eventually being able to close the whole building downtown," Hammond said. "We're not asking for anything in terms of new money right now for the transition. This all concerns what has to be the basis of moving all our operations and upgrading to meet all the standards out there going forward."
Hammond is set to present specifics of the transition plan and provide more details about the $20 million contract at the beginning of the commission's voting meeting on Sept. 2, before the vote awarding the bid.
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.