Jail, courthouse expansion talks to resume
Published: Monday, January 9, 2012 at 12:30 a.m.
Public conversation on expanding the Davidson County Courthouse and jail has slowed over the past year and a half, though county officials say they haven't forgotten about the project.
With the jail population at a manageable level in the mid 200s, said Davidson County Sheriff David Grice, and with depressed funds, the project has essentially been put on hold.
The last real discussion on expansion was in July 2010, when Davidson County commissioners heard a recommendation from architectural firm Ware Bonsall, which gave the results of an assessment on whether the existing courthouse is suitable for expansion. Their estimated figure — which called for a mix of expansion and new construction — totaled $118.5 million.
With the county positioning itself to pay off $24.5 million over the coming years for a new middle school in the northern section of the county, officials say the timing is off to undertake the jail and courthouse project.
"The way I see it, that will be the next major investment that we'll make in the county, there's no doubt about that," Sam Watford, chairman of the Davidson County Board of Commissioners, said about the expansion. "But with the way things are now, with us having the highest unemployment around and our property values not holding up like they should and our business as slow as it is, it's just not a good time."
The quick fix to keep the jail population down has been to expedite the judicial process, which officials say has been working well. Grice, commissioners vice chairman Larry Potts and Davidson County Clerk of Superior Court Brian Shipwash all credited the measure as attributing to a short-term solution for jail population.
"The judges got together with the District Attorney and said let's move these court cases through, particularly the minor ones," Potts said. "They've done that, and it's relieved our overcrowding."
Shipwash shared Potts' affirmations, saying "We're doing everything we can to keep the jail population at a minimum, and we've done an incredible job by becoming more efficient."
A jail study committee was formed in 2007 to look at efficiency after the jail experienced a peak in population with 379 inmates. Since then, Shipwash says the jail hasn't held more than 300 inmates.
"We've been able to keep things very low and very steady," Shipwash said. "That's because of the effort of the judiciary, and a lot of that credit goes to Garry Frank (Davidson County District Attorney)."
Much has changed since commissioners last debated the expansion. The county purchased the former Lexcom building on North State Street in November, and the sheriff's office purchased in December nearly six acres of land at the intersection of U.S. Highway 64 East and North County Home Road that could be the department's new home by the end of the year.
With commissioners aiming to update the conversation surrounding the project next month at their annual budget retreat, Shipwash said he is eager to revisit the topic.
"I can understand their (commissioners) apprehension with wanting to expand during such tough economic times, but whether or not we act now, I definitely think there is a strong need to plan now," he said. "When times are better and they (commissioners) feel comfortable looking at such a great capital expense, we'll have a good plan in order."
David Bodenheimer can be reached at 249-3981, ext. 227, or at david.bodenheimer@