Fulton Commission poised to move forward with plan for new jail

Views of the exterior of Fulton County Jail shown on March 30, 2023. (Natrice Miller/ The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Views of the exterior of Fulton County Jail shown on March 30, 2023. (Natrice Miller/ The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Fulton County commissioners are poised to formally approve building a new jail for $1.7 billion, plus reserving up to $40 million to keep the old jail functioning until the new one is built.

At today’s meeting commissioners will consider two jail-related resolutions. One, sponsored by Chairman Robb Pitts, directs county staff to go ahead with “planning and seeking financing for the design, construction, and ongoing maintenance of a replacement Fulton County Jail facility” at a target price of $1.7 billion. The expected opening date is 2029.

That matches the consensus commissioners reached at a July 12 planning session. Commissioners have debated several options for the jail, from a $2 billion project with 5,480 beds, to renovation of the current Rice Street facility and construction of smaller additions.

The agreed-upon plan is a middle course, with phased construction of a 4,500-bed facility based on best-case projections for population growth and court efficiency to keep jail occupancy under control.

The current 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.

In mid-July occupancy stood above 3,500, with one-third of those inmates not yet indicted.

The new jail is expected to not only have room for more inmates but vastly expanded medical and mental health services, plus educational and reentry program space. Construction is projected to last from 2026 through 2028.

To finance the new jail, county staff will look at seeking state permission for an additional sales tax — the amount not yet determined, but perhaps a half-cent. Commissioner Bob Ellis has openly doubted a full cent tax would be approved.

Such a tax would probably require a public referendum. If a sales tax isn’t approved, or doesn’t bring in enough to cover the jail’s cost, money could come from hiking property taxes, federal funds or other revenue sources.

For up-front construction money the county will likely issue bonds through a third party such as the South Fulton Municipal Regional Jail Authority.

A second resolution coming up Wednesday would put up to $40 million of expected property tax revenue aside to keep the old jail running until 2029.

Commissioners will set the property tax rate Aug. 16. They have signaled it will increase from the current 8.87 mills to no more than 9.2724 mills. A mill is equal to $1 of tax for each $1,000 of assessed property value.

The current rate is expected to bring in $636.4 million, so a higher rate would bring in more. The proposed resolution would put up to $40 million of that extra money into a reserve account.

“Funds in this reserve account will be used to cover expenses pertaining to the jail bridging plan and replacement jail design/construction,” the resolution says.

In early June, Sheriff Patrick Labat asked commissioners for $27.6 million above the existing jail budget: $11.1 million for personnel costs, $7.7 for maintenance and repairs, $4.6 million more for medical expenses, $3.8 million for food, and $500,000 for public information.