Pending legislation would delay Boyle jail construction for years

Published 8:00 am Monday, March 13, 2023

A new piece of legislation that will delay much-needed jail construction in Boyle County is on its way to being passed by the state. During the Feb. 28 Fiscal Court meeting, Boyle magistrates spoke against this legislation.

House Bill 507 would put an almost three-year moratorium on any new county jail construction, if the county has to use debt financing for the project.

Boyle County would almost certainly use debt financing for their proposed new jail according to recent discussions, since it will cost tens of millions of dollars. A new jail project has been discussed for more than five years.

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The bill declares an emergency, and would ban any “building, constructing, remodeling, or making other physical changes to local correctional facilities, and the remodeling of local correctional facilities if that remodeling is financed with debt; include an exception in the case that a court of law orders specific construction; provide that the provisions be repealed effective December 31, 2028,” according to the Kentucky General Assembly website.

The House passed the bill on March 7 with the substitution, “that these provisions do not prevent acting to keep an existing facility in compliance with law or prevent replacing or rebuilding a facility following a catastrophic event; change date of repeal to December 31, 2025.” The bill moves on to the Senate for discussion and voting.

Bill sponsor Rep. Josh Bray, R-Mount Vernon, told the House local government committee that the state wants to make sure counties aren’t taking on additional debt based on what their environment is currently like, without knowing what the environment will be in two years.

However, the Boyle County Detention Center has physical defects that require major renovation, according to a 2018 architectural study. The jail has had different troubles with overcrowding for many years, partly due to poor case handling which has since been addressed. Jail numbers dropped around the time of the Covid pandemic, but have been on the rise again.

The jail has been housing both Boyle and Mercer County inmates, in addition to state inmates. The jail has 220 beds, and Boyle County Jailer Brian Wofford said all of them are currently full.

Magistrate Tom Ellis, who sits on the Kentucky Magistrates and Commissioners Association’s legislative committee, said the bill is fundamentally against home rule, which allows local entities to self-govern.

Wofford agreed, saying, “This is just my opinion, but I think this is setting up for an overreach for the state government that I would not agree with.”

Counties have already had to bear the cost of unfunded mandates, such as last year’s new law that all schools must have school resource officers, which many counties could not afford.

House Bill 507 was only introduced in the House on Feb. 22. It comes after four Kentucky counties filed a lawsuit against the state regarding inadequate funding for state inmates.

The Kentucky Jailers Association, along with jails in Boyd, Marion, Campbell and Kenton counties, filed a lawsuit against the Kentucky Department of Corrections on Jan. 20. They claim that the state has ignored its statutory responsibilities to care for state inmates they place in county jails.

Almost half of Kentucky’s state inmates are housed in local jails because 12 state prisons are full. This has led to county jails being overcrowded.

According to the lawsuit, the state is paying an extremely low, unreasonable rate to compensate county jails. The DOC pays county jails $35.34 per diem to house state inmates. However, the daily rate that counties actually spend on these inmates is more than $50, the jailers say in their suit.

As a result, counties have had to use more local taxpayer dollars to pay for housing state inmates. Although Boyle County is not a part of this lawsuit, this is also happening in the Boyle County Detention Center.

Wofford explained in the most recent fiscal court meeting that they are spending more money than they receive for state inmates, who make up a large portion of Boyle’s jail population.

But if the county stops housing state inmates, they would lose about $1.2 to $1.4 million per year in funding, according to County Treasurer Darlene Lanham. Wofford said their overall costs would go down, but Boyle and Mercer would have to absorb operational costs of housing less inmates with the same facilities.

The best solution for the county is to build a new jail, according to Wofford. He said that he and the Kentucky Jailers Association are against House Bill 507.

Ellis said if the bill passes, the actual potential delay for a new Boyle County jail could be six to nine years. But the jail has immediate needs that were revealed in a 2018 study.

About five years ago, Boyle and Mercer counties hired architect firm Brandstetter Carroll to complete a $75,000 study of the jail and its system.

The study, formally released at the end of 2018, identified a long list of physical defects with the jail’s current building, which has been costing taxpayer money to upkeep. It also found issues with case processing and re-jailing of defendants that contributed to the overcrowding problem.

The study recommended building a new jail with more beds and more mental health and rehabilitation services.

It estimated that the cost of a new facility would be $34 million, whereas renovating and expanding the existing jail would be $36 million. Renovating the current building would add costs like relocating inmates while the building is being worked on.

Wofford explained that HB 507 would also move counties in the direction of forming regional jails instead of county jails.

“What would happen with the counties is that they would have to form a board and hire a jail administrator,” Wofford said. “Whoever’s the jailer at the time is still jailer, but they will not be working at the jail… It’s more expensive for the counties, it takes away control from the counties.”

HB 507 would exacerbate problems that Boyle’s jail has with substandard conditions, since it would limit their ability to fix problems. Small changes to the current jail would only spend more taxpayer money that they could be using on a new facility.

The county has been trying to find land for the new jail, but has had trouble due to the high cost of land. One option they have discussed is asking the state to donate land that’s part of Northpointe Training Center, which would make the project much more affordable.

The county had decided to work with Brandstetter Carroll to design a new jail facility. The fiscal court would have signed a contract with them at the Feb. 28 meeting, but that contract is now on hold.

Ellis said that leadership in the Senate have conveyed a message that they will pass some version of HB 507.

The court decided to postpone signing the contract until the March 28 meeting, which is around the time the bill would be passed in this legislative session.

This article has been updated to include additional information.