Citizens Divided On Jail Location

Smithfield resident Paul Worley speaks to County Commissioners during a public hearing on a proposed new Johnston County Jail Wednesday night at the Johnston County Courthouse. Photo

About 50 people attended a public hearing Wednesday night on a proposed new Johnston County Jail.  A total of 13 residents, civic leaders and business owners spoke during the one hour hearing.  In the end, the crowd was nearly divided on where the new jail should be built.

Jeff Carver, Chairman of the Johnston County Board of Commissioners, called for the public hearing following a report presented to county leaders last month showing the pros and cons of a new jail site in Downtown Smithfield and at a remote and still undetermined location.

Sarah Edwards, Executive Director of the Downtown Smithfield Development Corporation, said moving the jail from Downtown Smithfield would have a financial impact on downtown businesses, particularly restaurants.  Edwards said the 357 county employees at the courthouse average spending $2,500 to $3,500 each year with downtown merchants, amounting to $900,000 to $1.25 million annually.  Edwards said if a remote site were to be selected, she would like to see it built as close to Downtown as possible.

Businessman Ross Lampe expressed concern about the current debt Johnston County government currently owes. Lampe said the County owes $532 million and has $36 million in cash on hand. He called the 78 cents property tax rate high compared to the tax rate in Wake County of 61.5 cents, 67 cents in Nash County, and 66.33 cents in Wayne County.  Lampe said the jail needs to be built as cheaply as possible to lower the 78 cents tax rate closer to Wake County’s rate.

Kenneth Taylor of Clayton recommended criminal courtrooms be constructed at a new remote jail site to eliminate prisoner transports to the courthouse in Downtown Smithfield.  He suggested commissioners build the jail on land the County already owns off Highway 210 near to the Johnston County Landfill.

Interim Smithfield Selma Chamber Director Kelly Wallace told commissioners the chamber board had not taken a position on the jail location but wants to ensure positive economic growth and job creation, including jobs in Downtown Smithfield.

Smithfield resident William Ragsdale said he failed to see how moving the jail outside of Downtown Smithfield would hurt local businesses. Ragsdale said he has never seen a prisoner eating in a Downtown restaurant or patronizing other businesses. He said locating next to the county landfill and tapping into methane gas, a byproduct of the landfill, could save on heating and electric costs at a new jail.

Paul Worley, the son of former Smithfield Mayor Norwood Worley, said he had concerns with an original location selected on Buffalo Road. The option on the Buffalo Road site has now expired.  Worley said he would like to see new residential growth in Smithfield, which would add to the existing tax base.

He suggested the current Sheriff’s Office Fleet Service facility and Animal Control offices located on North Brightleaf Boulevard could be consolidated at a new site, allowing the county to sell the Brightleaf property and create jobs and tax revenue from a new owner.  Worley said it was important to take advantage of every business opportunity possible.

Hank Roberson, owner of Hank’s Florist on South Second Street said he wanted to see the jail stay in Downtown Smithfield, saying it was important to his business to be able to sell flowers to courthouse employees.  Roberson said a parking deck was needed regardless of the jail site.

Attorney Jim Levinson said a new jail should be built Downtown. He said if the commissioners long-term plan was to kill Downtown Smithfield, moving the jail was the first move.

The new owner of the Howell Theatre, Bill Johnson of Benson, said parking is already a problem. Johnson, the son of George Johnson the former sheriff from 1978 to 1986, said some downtown businesses would die while construction of a new jail was underway next to the courthouse. He said there would be no where to park and potential customers would go elsewhere.

Johnson, who had previously worked in a county jail, said a remote site would be safer for employees by housing inmates on one level.

Jail Overcrowding
The current jail is designed to accommodate 191 inmates but houses over 200 prisoners each day.  The average inmate population is 300 prisoners each day. Because of the overcrowding, Johnston County inmates are being housed in jails in Wayne, Sampson and Harnett counties.

Proposed New Jail
The report from Mosley Architects recommended the core of a new jail be designed for 600 inmates, including the intake corridor and kitchen. Initially the new jail would need 400 beds but would be constructed so it could expand to 600 beds when needed.

Based on current projections, Johnston County will need 337 prisoner beds by 2020, 405 by 2030, and 477 by 2040.  Officials stressed these numbers could easily increase based on the county’s growing population.

A remote 400-bed site designed to expand to 600 beds would cost $36 million. Once designed, construction would take about 2 years to complete.

A Downtown Smithfield site could only house 300 prisoners and would cost $33.5 million and would be at capacity when built. Additionally, a $7.8 million parking deck would be needed to offset parking spaces that would be eliminated by a new jail annex. Costs for property acquisition were not factored into the prices.