Update: On Friday afternoon Governor Roy Cooper announced he had signed House Bill 757, approving the land transfer to facilitate a new Pender County detention center.
BURGAW — North Carolina legislators have signed off on a transfer of state-owned land to Pender County for a future jail site — all for the price of one dollar.
Last week the North Carolina General Assembly ratified House Bill 757, which if signed into law by Governor Roy Cooper would transfer approximately 100 acres of state-owned agricultural land to Pender County “so long as it is utilized as a jail and law enforcement center.”
The July 10 bill ratification came two days after county commissioners approved $575,000 to house inmates in state and neighboring county facilities due to overcrowding in the Pender Correctional Center, the county’s only jail. With 92 beds, Pender has one of the lowest capacities to house inmates in southeastern North Carolina.
On July 11, the bill was presented to Governor Cooper, according to the North Carolina General Assembly website.
Waiting for the governor’s signature
On Thursday the governor’s office did not respond whether Cooper expects to sign the bill into law. If he does, the state will be allowed to “convey to the Pender County Board of Commissioners, for consideration of one dollar, all [of the land’s] rights, titles, and interests.” If he vetoes the bill for any reason, legislators could override it with a three-fifths majority in each chamber.
The bill’s primary sponsor is Representative Carson Smith, who won a seat in the House after a 16-year career as Pender County Sheriff. On Thursday afternoon, Smith said the governor has 10 days from the bill’s ratification to sign it into law.
“According to my math, he has until Sunday to sign it,” Smith said, adding that he anticipates the governor’s support. The delay, he said, is likely due to a stack of bills accumulating on his desk.
Governor Cooper is in the middle of a standoff with Republican legislators after he vetoed a state budget that didn’t include Medicaid expansion.
On Thursday afternoon, Sheriff Alan Cutler said he was told earlier in the day the governor had not yet signed the bill. But now that a future jail is one step closer to becoming a reality, Cutler was excited for the benefits it would bring the county — mainly the elimination of roughly a half-million dollars spent yearly to house inmates outside the county.
“It’s something that’s been needed for a good while now,” Sheriff Cutler said.
But he also expects between two-and-a-half to three years “before a key is turned and everybody gets in it.”
Pender County Manager Randell Woodruff said his office has also not received any official word from the state.
“We can’t really proceed until it’s been officially approved,” Woodruff said. “At this point I wouldn’t want to speculate, or get the cart before the horse, until I receive something official.”
A thousand inmates transferred in 2018
If approved, Woodruff said county commissioners must then green-light a study to determine the size and design of the new jail facility; in March, he had estimated the evaluation and planning process to take about a year.
He said the new jail would not only eliminate the need to send inmates to neighboring counties, but it would also allow Pender to receive outside inmates itself if capacity levels allow it.
“You can make a ton of money off of that,” Woodruff said.
The bill would also allow the county to grant a deed of trust or a similar security instrument to finance acquisition and construction of the future facility as well as any improvements or additions to the property.
The property in question is on the same 350-acre parcel where the current jail is located. According to Woodruff, the land is currently used for farming.
In March, Woodruff told commissioners that the Pender County Sheriff’s Office transported 1,042 inmates to out-of-county jail facilities in 2018, using 1,600 man-hours, 725 transports, and a total traveled distance of almost 78,000 miles across the state.
He said the land’s close proximity to the Pender County Courthouse and to the county’s other judicial and administrative facilities was ideal for the new jail facility.
In a November board meeting, Commissioner David Williams said $800,000 was earmarked for a future land acquisition to build a new county jail. Woodruff later said if the land transfer was approved instead, that money would go towards the facility itself.
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