PENDER COUNTY –– After struggling for years with overcrowding issues at its aging jail facility, the Pender County Board of Commissioners approved soft costs associated with administrative work to construct a $44-million law enforcement project last week.
The project consists of a $32.3-million jail to last the county through 2045, and an $11.6 million law enforcement hub where the 911 emergency operations center and sheriff’s headquarters will be housed.
Planned on a 100-acre rural tract gifted to the county by a state bill in 2019, the facilities would sit on roughly one-third of the property. Plenty of extra room to the west and south of the site on the county land off Old Savannah Road will remain for any future expansions.
The new 233-bed jail will more than double the county’s capacity to house inmates awaiting trial.
Commissioners allocated approximately $1.4 million from its capital reserve fund, set aside for the purpose of a new jail facility, for the administrative costs at its regular meeting Oct. 18. Another $1.7 million to round out the planning will come from the county’s general fund, according to county manager Chad McEwen.
The county is seeking a low-interest U.S. Department of Agriculture loan to finance the project, likely on a 40-year schedule. Part of the administrative costs includes compliance with USDA requirements and coordination with the federal agency.
“Obviously, securing funding for the project, favorable lending terms, is a priority,” he said. “And this step is imperative to take, in order to determine and secure that.”
Once the loan is secured, the county will be able to reimburse what it borrowed from the general fund (still debt, nonetheless), which McEwen said will remain at a healthy level.
“Do we want to spend $40 million? Is that desired? That type of debt is not something taken lightly,” he said.
First built in 1978, the Pender County jail is frequently overcrowded. The county spent an average of $554,100 to transfer inmates to neighboring county and state facilities annually between fiscal years 2015-2020, according to previous Port City Daily reporting. This represented at least $2.8 million spent on the shuffle in that timeframe, a figure that has surely climbed.
In 2018, the county relocated 1,042 inmates to other facilities, spending 1,600 hours of county labor across 725 transports traveling approximately 78,000 miles, the former county manager previously told Port City Daily.
The county first engaged Moseley Architects, the most prominent firm in this field in North Carolina, for a needs assessment in 2011. Because Pender had no land or room for its downtown Burgaw jail to expand, plans to implement the recommendations never materialized.
Last week, commissioners OK’d an architectural and engineering design services request with Moseley –– the same firm that prepared the needs assessment. This needs assessment was used as the basis for issuing a request for qualifications the firm itself succeeded in applying for. Several firms responded to the RFQ, according to McEwen, but ultimately Moseley was selected.
A series released this week by Carolina Public Press details concerns raised by scholars and experts in the field when architects (namely, Moseley) have a say in influencing jail expansion decisions.
The critique surrounds the company’s assumption that crime rates stay consistent when accounting for jail size to accommodate population increases. It also calls to question the conflict of interest of employing a firm that stands to gain from the eventual construction of facilities to make a recommendation on whether such an expansion is necessary.
When approving the Moseley contract, Commissioner David Piepmeyer asked the county to include a structured performance schedule so the company can stay on track and issue deliverables on a predetermined basis.
“What I don’t want to happen is I don’t want to spend a bunch of money on preliminary stuff and not get what we need in order to be able to proceed,” he said at last week’s meeting. “My concern is, if this takes too long, inflation’s gonna kill ‘em. And they’re not going to be as happy to perform if that occurs.”
Last year, the county re-engaged with Moseley to update the needs study.
“We’re having these conversations because that piece of property became available,” Chairman George Brown said at the August 2020 meeting before Moseley presented its findings. “That was a nice gift from the state and we appreciated it.”
Moseley’s analysis of jail capacity showed on average the county operated consistently at or exceeded its operational capacity to allow for the proper classification of inmates. Peak populations exceeded operating capacity from 2016-2019.
In 1994 and 1999, the jail added 14- and 48-bed dorms to reach 92 total beds.
“We like to say that jails kind of age in dog years because you don’t close it down and most of the occupants are trying to tear it up,” Dan Mace, Moseley’s justice sector leader, told the board. “These facilities take a lot more abuse than any other county facility you may have. So the fact that you’ve been able to stay in operation since ’78 with this thing is, I’ll give you kudos with great management to keep a facility of that age still operational.”
Pender’s problem is not so much in literal overcrowding, but more so in keeping in line with regulations that govern inmate populations: Depending on an inmate’s age, gender, and offense, correctional facilities must balance populations based on myriad rules, hence why operational capacity falls below the total number of beds.
For a facility to fill all of its beds and reach actual capacity, it would have to be “kind of the perfect world,” said Todd Davis, the firm’s director of justice planning and development.
Jail admissions in Pender dropped 19% between 2015 and 2019, according to Moseley’s analysis. Davis said the drop was not unusual, but indicative of a change of procedure among law enforcement officials to divert offenders from the facility given the overcrowding.
Offenders spent an average of 13 days at the jail –– a number so “incredible” and “unusual” Davis said he doubted at first: “I actually ran those numbers three times because I said, ‘There’s no way it’s that low,’” he said.
“You gon’ keep on with numbers like that you’re going to talk us out of a jail,” Brown joked. Davis commended the local criminal justice system for its efficiencies in keeping the length of stay so low.
Moseley arrived at its bed capacity recommendation by computing the admission rate per 10,000 residents and accounting for population growth. It uses the highest admission rate, rather than the average or lowest, because those figures are not accurate in reflecting what the average daily populations will be, Davis explained.
At 470 per 10,000 residents –– the highest admission rate –– Pender fell far below the approximately 50 other counties (half of the state) Moseley has prepared assessments for. “So maybe that means you have better behaved citizens in Pender County,” he said.
Compared to the 2011 assessment, the updated recommendations actually came out 25 beds fewer, with a total of 233 beds planned.
There is no set timeline for completing the project, according to McEwen.
Once the planning phase is complete, Moseley will help the county solicit bids for construction firms. “It’s really going to depend on that USDA process, which is very involved and lengthy,” he said. “It’s really going to depend on that process in order for timeline and next steps.”
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