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Jail expansion talks stall

WINDSOR – Unless a windfall of money arrives from the state, plans to expand the Bertie-Martin Regional Jail – to include housing Chowan County inmates – have stalled for the present time.

That was the decision of the Bertie County Board of Commissioners at a workshop they held last week. It was learned at the meeting that the Martin County Commissioners also reached the same conclusion.

Bertie County Manager Juan Vaughan II reminded his board that a joint meeting was held in late September between officials from the three counties along with members of the Jail Commission. He said at that meeting, the county managers were directed to meet with their respective boards and discuss what direction to take at this point.

“Chowan [County] is at a point where they need to do something; they’re eager to know if we’re willing to allow [expansion] to happen,” Vaughan said.

Vaughan added that the Martin County Commissioners have already met, at which time they discussed the possible expansion of the jail to include housing inmates from Chowan County.

“[Martin County Manager] David Bone said his board is onboard [with the expansion], but however they have concerns about the costs,” Vaughan noted.

As to those costs, Vaughan said there are three options…Plan A is no expansion or renovations; Plan B is a small expansion and renovations to the existing facility at an approximate cost of $14 million; and Plan C detailed a larger expansion/renovation, which would add Chowan County inmates. The latter plan comes with an estimated $17.8 million price tag.

“We went over this at the Jail Commission meeting [held Oct. 13] and Mr. Dempsey Bond, vice chairman of the Martin County Commissioners, stated they voted not to go forward with this expansion at this time due to the fact of financial issues that Martin County would have,” said Bertie Commissioner John Trent who also sits on the Bertie-Martin Regional Jail Commission. “Mr. Bond said it would be a year or two before they would be willing to do anything. That’s what I heard.”

Bertie Commissioner Tammy Lee said from the discussion she heard at the late September meeting led her to believe that something needs to be done.

“But I am not in favor of spending 17 million dollars and I’m not in favor of the plan they submitted with all that fluff….we need cells; we don’t need another visitation area; we don’t need another kitchen. If we’re going to do this let’s go back to the drawing board and come up with a better solution for a lot less money.”

John Wesson, chairman of the Bertie Commissioners, said he initially balked at the idea of expanding the jail, but then had second thoughts after closely studying the plan.

“If we went into this with the other partner [Chowan County], it would decrease our share of the costs down the line,” Wesson observed. “If that is true, would we regret this later by not adding a partner now?”

Vaughan then offered additional information regarding the decision reached on the matter by the Martin County Commissioners. He said they met on Oct. 7 where the board is “interested in further discussion about the potential addition of Chowan County to the Bertie-Martin Regional Jail partnership, but it not interested in moving forward with the construction project as presented at this time if funding is provided solely by the three counties.”

Vaughan added that the Martin County Commissioners pitched an idea to the NC Association of County Commissioners to seek legislation for the Department of Public Safety to encourage grant funding for regional jail construction and renovation.

“My point is this….I don’t believe the Bertie County taxpayers need to be coming up with six-to-seven million dollars to bring somebody else onboard with us,” Trent stressed. “I have an alternative plan that I brought up at the [Jail] Commission meeting. That is to find the old architectural drawings for the [jail] dormitory we now have, that was built in 1994, and take that to a commercial builder and have them to bid it at today’s price.

“We already know that to update the interior of our existing jail it would cost one million dollars,” Trent continued. “We could get a price on what it would cost to add a 40-bed dormitory and then come back to the drawing board. This is a county commissioners decision and not a jail commission decision. Personally, as a commissioner, I don’t want to put the burden on Bertie taxpayers unless we have something similar to our 9-1-1 call center that costs us zero money.”

Wesson said he agreed with the Martin County Commissioners.

“I wouldn’t want to go forward unless there were external funds to pay the costs for this,” he said. “The burden is too high. I can’t see us going with this from our pockets.”

Lee said she understood that Chowan County needs to do something now when it comes to housing their inmates.

“They can’t wait,” she remarked. “They’re in a bind.”

“We still have to decide if we are going to bring Chowan County in,” stated Commissioner Greg Atkins. “Unless it’s a good deal, bringing in another county may be a lot more to deal with.”

Trent made a motion that Bertie County will not move forward with new construction at the regional jail unless it is subsidized by the state. If that occurs, the county will then move forward with further discussion about expansion plans at the jail.

“Even if external money comes along, we still may not want to do this,” Wesson said. “All we’re saying [with this motion] is we may discuss it further.”

The motion passed without objection.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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