Fulton County scraps plans for new $1.7B jail for a $300M renovation

Aerial photo shows the Fulton County Jail, Tuesday, August 22, 2023, in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Aerial photo shows the Fulton County Jail, Tuesday, August 22, 2023, in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Fulton County is going back to the drawing board on what to do about its crumbling jails.

Commissioners voted 4-3 Wednesday to issue a new request for proposals to plan “renovations of Rice Street and South Annex and estimates for a new special purpose facility.” That’s a reversal of last year’s plan, which commissioners canceled in May, for an all-new jail on the current Rice Street site at an estimated $1.7 billion.

The proposed renovation and “special purpose facility” — likely for a medical unit or inmates with serious mental health issues — would have an upper price limit of $300 million, according to the projected bond issue for the project.

The renovations would cover the Marietta Street jail annex as well, according to Steve Nawrocki, county assistant chief strategy officer. “We would need a plan for inmate relocations during the renovations,” he said.

There is no estimate of relocation costs, or how long that would be necessary, according to an exchange between Commissioner Dana Barrett and county Chief Financial Officer Sharon Whitmore.

The county will ask for a way to do all that without increasing its property tax rate, Nawrocki said.

The county allocated $10 million in its 2024 budget to prepare for a new jail. That could be repurposed for a bond issue that could generate $85 million to $150 million, Whitmore said. Repurposing an expected $9.7 million next year from expiring tax allocation districts could allow for another bond issue of the same size, for a total of $170 million to $300 million available for jail work, she said.

But Nawrocki cautioned that everything the county wants to do “may in fact exceed the available funding.” And other factors, such as an ongoing investigation of county jail conditions by the U.S. Department of Justice, could affect the cost, he said.

Nawrocki said formal proposals could come back by the end of this year, and a project design could be up for commissioners’ approval by mid-2025.

Barrett noted that delays the previous timeline for a new jail by a year, and asked when actual construction might start. By the fall of 2025 or later, Nawrocki replied.

Joe Davis, director of the Department of Real Estate & Asset Management, said some renovation work could use existing county contracts and could start faster. A new special purpose facility would come last.

“We’re further away on the new construction than we are on the renovation. I expect that to proceed pretty quickly,” Davis said.

Barrett pressed for details on what services would be included in a new building, noting the limited budget.

“Clearly there is a need for medical beds and behavioral health beds,” Davis said. But the primary goal is to extend the life of the existing jail buildings, he said. The need for and use of a new specialized building would depend primarily on how many inmates flow into the jail in coming years, Davis said.

Much of the renovation work will involve “major system replacement” in the existing jail, such as a new roof, he said. Those major systems would come with warranties and with regular maintenance would last for many years, Davis said.

Commissioner Marvin Arrington Jr. still argued for a new facility.

Citing a string of deaths in county custody over the last few years, Commissioner Khadijah Abdur-Rahman said there is public support for improving conditions and the operation of the justice system. “To do nothing” invites more expensive lawsuits and suggests that commissioners won’t make tough decisions, she said.