PENDER COUNTY — The need for a new law enforcement center is dire in Pender County, and officials are doing what they can to keep costs low so the project retains momentum. While the final price tag is yet to be determined until the project is bid, estimates have shuffled up and down since it was introduced.
In October, when commissioners first approved the facility, construction costs were approximately $44 million. The latest estimate jumped to roughly $48 million. County commissioners approved a revised site plan Monday, shaving off $2 million.
“We have things that have to be done, things that are nice and things you dream about and you’d really like to have,” commissioner chair David Piepmeyer said of the project. “In the reality of where we all live, we’re probably going to end up with what we have to do and a few of the things that would be nice — just a few — in order to keep the cost down.”
The prospect of a new jail has been in the works for almost a decade, finally gaining traction when the state contributed land in July 2019. The 100-acre property is located just northwest of Burgaw and only a few miles away from the existing jail.
“Instead of spending taxpayer money, we went out and acquired land already owned by the state for this purpose,” Piepmeyer said Monday. “It was a good thing because it enabled us to move forward.”
After the land was donated to the county, commissioners leased it out to a farm, while waiting for construction.
Last fall, commissioners engaged Moseley Architects (which had completed a feasibility study for the project in 2011) to begin the initial design phase. The contract would pay Moseley 8% of the project costs or roughly $3.5 million.
The multi-use law enforcement center will house the sheriff’s office, 911 center and a jail double the size of the current one. Issues with overcrowding at Pender County’s 92-bed jail have been ongoing for years, with the county spending roughly $3.3 million between fiscal years 2015 to 2020 to transfer inmates to neighboring counties, according to past Port City Daily reporting.
Following a Mar. 3 retreat, commissioners requested Moseley Architects find ways to save money constructing the future facility.
“If this becomes too pricey, it wouldn’t make sense,” Piepmeyer said. “We would just look at remodeling the current jail to correct the things that are wrong.”
He compared it to homeowners’ dilemmas of renovating versus buying new.
“Why purchase a new piece of property if it’s going to put you so far into debt, when you could just potentially renovate for a few minor dollars?” he said.
The antiquated jail lacks sufficient space and housing classification types (separating misdemeanors from felons and males versus females, for example) to meet state guidelines. Based on Moseley’s jail study presented to commissioners in 2020, an additional 153 beds will be needed by 2045. The study also noted the 1978 jail’s infrastructure is aging out and the current location would be near impossible to expand.
As a result, Moseley Architects is proposing a 96,000-square-foot building with 242 beds. Its core facilities — kitchen, cafeteria and laundry services — will be built to ably accommodate 350 beds.
Of the 242 beds, 78 are being proposed for a separate wing. The separation will give commissioners the opportunity to not build the extra space and save $5 million, finances pending.
“On bid day, [commissioners] can decide to proceed with that or not as a cost-saving measure,” Moseley project manager Bryan Payne explained. “There is cost associated with hiring and staffing for additional square footage. Also, the cost of construction.”
Piepmeyer also asked Payne to present next time an approximation on those added costs to give commissioners an idea of by how much the sheriff’s budget would need to be increased annually to sustain appropriate staffing.
“I’m not against building capacity into a new build,” Piepmeyer said. “We’re a growing county.”
Payne presented two site plan options to commissioners Monday night in an attempt to reduce the price tag, as construction costs and supply chain issues sky-rocket nationwide.
While it seemed commissioners already had their minds set on option two, both were discussed. The first suggestion would maximize the opportunity for future development, pushing the building location farther from public roads. It would require paving an additional road and installing new infrastructure to run water and sewer to the building.
The additional road would create an alternate route into the facility for when Old Savannah Road is flooded.
“Our only concern on layout was access for emergency situations and the possible flooding,” Sheriff Alan Cutler told commissioners.
The second and preferred option places the building closer to Old Savannah Road, making that its primary access point. It also makes use of an existing driveway to connect back to Old Savannah Road. While this would put the detention center closer to residential neighbors, commissioners were more concerned with the savings it would provide.
Piepmeyer explained this layout also allows the county the possibility of continuing to lease a portion of the land for farming as it does now to bring in additional income.
Commissioners voted unanimously to move forward with option two.
County manager Chad McEwen said Moseley Architects has been meeting with USDA to discuss financing options and is hoping for a long-term loan.
Commissioners also gave approval Monday for Moseley Architects to proceed to the design development phase, which is estimated to wrap in July. Payne said he then hopes to finish construction documents and receive final approval by the beginning of 2023.
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