Fulton scales back jail plan, debates financing

Cost of new facility would be $1.6 billion instead of the originally proposed $2 billion
Views of the dorm that holds inmates with mental health issues at Fulton County Jail shown on March 30, 2023. Plans for a new multibillion dollar facility on the 35 acre campus are underway. (Natrice Miller/ natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Views of the dorm that holds inmates with mental health issues at Fulton County Jail shown on March 30, 2023. Plans for a new multibillion dollar facility on the 35 acre campus are underway. (Natrice Miller/ natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Fulton County officials inched closer Wednesday to building a new jail, tentatively approving a phased-construction option estimated to cost $1.68 billion for a 4,500-bed facility — possibly funded by bonds issued through the South Fulton Municipal Regional Jail Authority.

The county will explore seeking an extra sales tax to make the bond payments, but officials aren’t counting on that. Alternatively they could hike the property tax rate and seek more money from development districts, federal funds or squeezing other areas of the county budget.

County commissioners heard from top-level staff on the options this week during a planning session for the next few years’ finances. Commissioners have debated several options for the jail, from a $2 billion project with more than 5,400 beds to renovation of the current Rice Street facility and construction of smaller additions.

The discussion continues even as the U.S. Department of Justice has opened an investigation into the jail, in response to the death last fall of a homeless inmate in the jail’s mental health unit.

County Manager Dick Anderson said the county’s issuance of general obligation bonds for the jail risks rejection by voters in a required referendum, leaving the best options as issuing bonds through a conduit such as the jail authority or some sort of public/private partnership.

The partnership route would involve agreement with a private firm to design, build, finance and maintain a new jail for at least 30 years, in return for county payments. Anderson said he knows of no other place in which that has been done.

The county faces other big expenditures, such as more funding for public health and upping employee pay to match surrounding areas, he said.

Commissioner Khadijah Abdur-Rahman asked for staff’s opinion of the best financing option. Chief Financial Officer Sharon Whitmore named issuing bonds through a third party.

The county has already used its capacity to impose additional sales taxes, sharing a 1% tax with cities and using another 1% to fund MARTA, Whitmore said.

Views of wall damage and leakage in the inmate bathroom at Fulton County Jail shown on Thursday, March 30, 2023. Plans for a new multibillion dollar facility on the 35 acre campus are underway. (Natrice Miller/ natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

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Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

“In order for us to pursue an additional sales tax that we could dedicate to the jail construction project we would need to seek legislation for an exemption to the 2% cap,” she said. “More than likely it will have a referendum requirement, but it may not.”

Even with state authorization, Commissioner Bob Ellis doubted that voters would approve another 1% sales tax, but said the county should seek at least some portion of that. He also suggested asking cities for some rebate of the sales tax already in existence.

“This is a taxpayer expenditure that all of our citizens are going to have to bear,” Ellis said.

Commission Chairman Robb Pitts has floated the idea of repairing the 34-year-old Rice Street jail. Alton Adams, county chief operating officer for Justice, Public Safety & Technology, said the current jail’s decrepit state and limited capacity make renovation the least viable option staff considered.

Renovating the old jail and building a smaller new addition would likely cost $2.45 billion and result in no more available beds than the $1.68 billion option, Adams said.

The jail at 901 Rice St. was designed to hold 1,125 inmates. It was considered obsolete upon its 1989 opening, and has been overcrowded for decades. During the COVID-19 shutdown, average daily occupancy passed 3,000, and there it has remained despite the county devoting $75 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act to reducing a court backlog of more than 200,000 cases.

During the regular commission meeting Wednesday, Anderson said jail occupancy stands at 3,596, with one-third of those inmates not yet indicted.

Adams said the proportion of unindicted inmates is down from 36% two months ago, but the goal is 10%. The county is looking at eight ways to lower the jail’s daily population, including the launch of “weekend court.”

Ellis said it’s concerning that commissioners keep hearing of such initiatives but see no real progress in reducing the number of inmates.

Earlier this year, a consultants’ report called for a new jail with 5,480 beds, but also with vastly expanded medical and mental health services, plus educational and reentry program space. That full complex was expected to cost $2 billion up front, a price at which commissioners balked. The latest proposal would build fewer beds to start with, though still including more services, and could be expanded if inmate numbers continue to climb. Construction is projected to last from 2026 through 2028.

The scaled-back plan would hinge on beating projections of the number of inmates, based on current trends and expected population growth.

Commissioner Dana Barrett said she will only be comfortable with the $1.68 billion option if it’s accompanied by “one last-ditch effort” to get the justice system’s commitment on measures to reduce inmate numbers and the average length of jail stays: greater court efficiency, diversion programs, more mental health treatment.

Views of the dorm that holds inmates with mental health issues at Fulton County Jail shown on March 30, 2023. Plans for a new multibillion dollar facility on the 35 acre campus are underway. (Natrice Miller/ natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

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Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

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