Fulton County reconsiders new $1.7B jail

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 having second thoughts about building a new jail, estimated at $1.7 billion, after state legislators signaled they won’t allow a new local sales tax to pay for it.

Commissioners and county staff all said there was no interest when they approached state legislators this session to ask about legislation allowing a new sales tax — which would likely also require a countywide referendum. The only other option extensively discussed is an increase in county property tax rates, which commissioners rejected last year.

With no other solid ideas on financing, commissioners voted to rescind a months-old search for a jail project manager, instead asking staff to write a new request for proposals that would reexamine the feasibility of a new jail and how to finance it. That new request would need commissioners’ approval before it goes out.

“I think this conversation has really been overdue,” Chair Robb Pitts said.

Last year Sheriff Patrick Labat announced a “blitz” plan to repair all 11 of the Rice Street jail’s housing units, at a cost of $13 million. On Wednesday Joe Davis, director of the county Department of Real Estate & Asset Management, said four units have been repaired and a fifth is half-done. All 11 should be cleaned and fixed up by February 2025, he said.

But about 220 beds — roughly one-fifth of the jail’s nonmedical beds — are unusable due to a recent fire, Davis said.

The jail needs a full roof replacement and its elevators, last modernized in 2007, may need replacement too, he said.

County facilities staff will also look at the jail’s boilers, heating and cooling system with an eye to possible replacement, Davis said.

Labat wants more cameras around the jail perimeter, new fences and brush cleared to reduce contraband entering the jail, Davis said. And the jail South Annex in Union City, which reopened last year, should also be extensively renovated and upgraded, he said.

“We fully anticipate there being a long-term need for that facility,” Davis said.

Vandalism is a major problem at the jail, and has increased rapidly, he said. Inmates damage the elevators, and the county spends $40,000 a month replacing windows, Davis said. Now windows are being replaced with material that should be difficult to damage, but higher costs are inevitable as the jail is hardened to hold more violent inmates, he said.

The jail has a chronic shortage of personnel, and that extends to maintenance staff, Davis said.

Commissioner Dana Barrett said the plan to build a 4,416-bed new jail, about twice the capacity of the current Rice Street jail, is estimated to carry a $1.7 billion price tag whereas renovating the old jail was pegged at $2.4 billion, not even counting a new roof and elevators.

“Renovating the current facility will cost more than a new one, and it will still be too small,” she said. A new or renovated jail needs to last for 30 years, and the old one would hold no more people although the county’s population is expected to keep growing, Barrett said.

County Manager Dick Anderson said financing and staffing costs for a new and larger jail might add $200 million a year to the county’s budget. The county’s General Fund budget for 2024 is about $954 million.

Commissioner Bridget Thorne said she no longer sees the need for a bigger jail, but rather a better way to treat the many inmates with mental or drug problems.

“We need to reduce our incarceration rate,” she said.

Commissioner Bob Ellis said the county needs to “fully revisit” the idea of a new jail and how to finance it. He believes the cost will ultimately weigh on Fulton County taxpayers, and he wouldn’t support raising property taxes for that purpose.

Ellis and Pitts both doubted the $2.4 billion cost projection for renovating the existing Rice Street jail.

Commissioner Khadijah Abdur-Rahman said she still supports a new jail, not only to replace the dilapidated Rice Street facility but to change the model of incarceration.

Must I remind us all about the number of deaths we have had in that facility?” she said.

Commissioner Marvin Arrington Jr. also urged moving forward with the new jail plan, saying it would only get more expensive if commissioners dither. But care for the many mentally ill inmates is the state’s responsibility, not the county’s, he said. State mental facilities are full, so those in need of care wind up in county jails — and on county budgets, Arrington said.

“In fact, let’s go send an invoice to the state for all the people who are in there, and use that money to build a new jail,” he said.

At Ellis’ motion, commissioners voted 4-2 to rescind and rewrite the RFP. Arrington and Barrett voted no, and Abdur-Rahman stepped out and did not vote.