Over a year ago, I wrote an editorial calling the Franklin County Jail expansion project an out-of-control Taj Mahal.
Well, here we are over a year later, and the jail’s completion has once again been pushed back for months.
Imagine, if you will, a jail expansion not much larger than the one neighboring Lincoln County built for $7.25 million that has cost roughly $17 million thus far and is still not finished. It’s like we are building the Taj Mahal in the Twilight Zone.
I want to stress we are talking about a jail expansion, not an entirely new facility. TWO new middle schools have been designed, built, and the old schools demolished in less than half of the three years the jail expansion has been under construction.
One middle school cost roughly $19 million to build compared to the expansion’s current price tag of about $17 million.
The expansion project has been poorly planned, managed and executed, and it is still not complete. The problems started when the County Commission did not bid the project out as a package to a general contractor but split up into nine bids for different parts of the project.
I raised this point in the last meeting of the Corrections Partnership Committee and Mr. Matthew Bobo, the current construction manager, stated it was done at his suggestion to save money.
Of those nine bids, only one had more than one bidder. That should have been the first red flag that the project was seriously flawed. The current “boogeyman” for the expansion is Oliver Little Gipson Engineering Inc., but I feel it is worth noting that OLG did the engineering for Lincoln County’s expansion, which went smoothly.
The first set of change orders included a major change to the control tower design. Instead of just raising the floor of the current tower, it was ripped out completely, and a massive platform was built, stretching across the old and new sections of the jail.
The control tower platform is so large you could probably hold a full-court basketball game, complete with spectators.
The area under the platform is designated to be a training facility, the last I heard.
No one involved in the construction of the tower has said it needed to be that size. In fact, they have said quite the opposite.
The cost of this single change made at the request of the Sheriff’s Department was roughly $1 million.
Other things were tacked onto this project at the sheriff’s request, such as a dedicated car wash bay, which I have been told cost somewhere between $200,000 and $500,000 to build.
Greater oversight by the County Commission could have prevented the costly excesses of the oversized control tower, car wash, and the sheriff’s office with a private bathroom.
There are more elements of the project, like concrete in an outdoor area that cost a staggering $419 per square yard that was installed simply to prevent that area from having to be mowed, and the list goes on.
Where do we go from here?
For one, we must learn the lessons of this project and the middle schools. The contrast is obvious.
The schools were planned and bid out to a single contractor, and oversight of the project was given to an experienced construction manager.
Massive changes requiring extensive redesigns were not a part of the middle school project, unlike the jail fiasco.
Mr. Bobo stated he hopes to have the jail completed by the end of the year, and I hope he can.
The County Commission transferred $160,000 out of the jail’s operating budget this past fiscal year to help cover the cost of contract extensions. We are down to just $16,000 in unallocated funds for an expansion project which is entering into its fourth year of construction.
The inmates are not even in the new housing area, and the old kitchen is still being demolished.
I do not see how this project can be finished with the funds allocated.
When this is finally finished, Franklin County will have a jail that will be full almost immediately, and I fear we will have invested the cost of an entire middle school.
How large of a brand-new facility can be built for $17 million? It is sickening to think that other counties have accomplished similar goals as this expansion was started at less than half the cost.
One thing people were talking about when I was running for the County Commission was a recreation center. If we had stuck close to the original design of the jail and associated construction costs, we could have built the proposed recreation center and still had millions of dollars left over compared to the cost of the Taj Mahal.
Greg King is the Franklin County District 4, Seat A commissioner and a Decherd police sergeant.