Leader Blues

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

TOP STORY > >New Lonoke jail top priority

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

Building a new jail to replace the aging, substandard, overcrowded jail currently in use is Lonoke County’s highest priority over the next two years, according to Lonoke County Judge Charlie Troutman.

Toward that end, the county is working to buy up the last of the land upon which it will build its new jail next to the old one, according to Justice of the Peace Larry Odom, chairman of the building committee.

“The money is coming in — with us doing the legwork, it’s all falling together pretty good, ” Odom said.

The money in question is from a one-year, penny sales tax dedicated to construction of a new jail, perhaps 140 beds. Voters narrowly approved that tax last May. At the time, it was estimated to raise $6 million to $6.2 million.

Troutman said last week it was too early to know the troubled economy would lower the actual amount.

Odom said that Lonoke County is generally exempt from the wild swings in the economy.

The first of that money, collected in October, should be sent to the county treasurer by the end of this month, Troutman said.

“How much of a jail $6 million will build we won’t know until the architects are involved,” Troutman said.

On Block 19 in the Wright Addition in Lonoke, the county already owns the existing jail, the adjacent building and a house next door, currently used by the Lonoke County Literacy Council, according to Troutman.

“We have the money to buy those pieces of property,” Troutman said.

“We are in conversations with the family that owns the middle building and they have agreed in principle to allow the county to buy it,” Odom said.

The other house and parcel the county must buy belongs to a man living in Batesville. In the past he’s been agreeable to the idea of the county buying the land, but Odom said he’s having trouble getting in touch with the man now.

Odom said the county had tentative plans, when the time comes, to move the literacy council to the county’s building in the Cabot Mini Mall that used to house a branch of the county assessor’s office.

That office moved about two weeks ago into a new building owned by the state revenue office on Pine Street in Cabot near Hwy. 321.

The county is also interested in buying the land not used by the county library in the bock south of the jail. That land would be used for jail parking, Odom said.

Once the new jail is built, the old jail could be pressed into other use by the county, held in reserve as a temporary lockup or even torn down.

“My first opinion is to take a bulldozer to it,” Odom said.

Regardless, the 911 center built into the east side of the jail a few years ago is in good condition and would be preserved for that use, Troutman said.

The Dallas County Jail after which this jail will be modeled was built largely by inmate labor, with the sheriff, a contractor himself, acting as the contractor.

When voters approved the jail tax, many expected that Act 309 inmate trustees would do much of the work, but since then a trustee was caught having sex with a female prisoner. Sheriff Jim Roberson admitted that he took an inmate to look at a car problem his daughter had and Roberson surrendered the program, sending those sometimes-skilled inmates back to the state Correction Department.

Odom said the run-of-the-mill Lonoke jail inmates would be sufficient to provide much of the labor, while the skilled work such as plumbing, wiring and heating, ventilation and air conditioning would need to be done by licensed contractors anyway.

Odom said the county could buy the plans already drawn for the Dallas County Jail at a reduced cost from the architect. He said that a retired Cabot contractor had agreed to work as a county employee to oversee construction of the jail.