County set to lock-in jail rebuilding project

December 29, 2008
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The process to reconstruct two outdated portions of the Kent County Correctional Facility should get started early next month when county commissioners meet Jan. 6.

Board members will be asked to approve a lease agreement with the Kent County Building Authority and make it known that they intend to issue bonds for the jail project, which is estimated to cost at least $27 million.

A $2.6 million renovation of the kitchen, dining and support areas of the juvenile detention center will also be included in the bond request, which can’t exceed $38 million.

Of the $38 million, $35 million will be targeted to the jail reconstruction, and $3 million will go toward the work at the detention center. The term won’t be longer than 22 years and the interest rate on the bonds can’t exceed 6.5 percent at selling.

County Fiscal Services Director Robert White said the bonds would likely go to market next fall, after the construction bids come in. But he added that the county needs to get the sales process started earlier than usual.

“The market isn’t really there yet,” he said. “We’re hoping the bond market will come back by the summer of 2009.”

White reminded members of the county’s Finance Committee that the bonds for the new Human Services Complex sold with an interest rate of 4.2 percent. That building, expected to open in June, also is a $27 million project. But White now expects the interest on the jail bonds will be closer to 6 percent, due to economic conditions and a buying market that lacks trust following the industry’s financial failures.

“That’s how the market has changed,” he said.

But the sale date could be moved forward if the bond market improves and the county can get a lower interest rate.

County Facilities Management Director Robert Mihos said the design phase for the jail reconstruction would get under way in February and construction bids would be requested in October. Work would start in 2010 and take about a year to complete. Construction at the detention center should get going halfway through next year and be finished in 2010.

The county has 520 beds in two sections at the jail, built in 1958 and 1974, that it wants to replace. Those cells house over 500 medium- and maximum-security inmates. Two hundred beds are categorized as maximum security.

“The cells are functionally obsolete,” said Mihos. “Per cell rates are between $50,000 to $75,000 each. We’re trying to replace as many of those beds as possible.”

Kent County Sheriff Larry Stelma said each bed may not get replaced. He said the county needs to get as many new beds as possible based on how much it can afford to spend on the project, rather than building all the beds without regard to cost.

“I don’t have a solution on where we’re going to make up the beds,” he said. “It’s an ongoing problem.”

One solution won’t be coming from making an investment in a regional jail with Allegan and Kalamazoo counties. County Assistant Administrator Wayman Britt said a report that will be given to commissioners next month will show that the county won’t gain anything by building and funding a regional jail with the other counties. But Britt did say there is room for some collaborative efforts between the counties.

When construction at the jail gets under way, Mihos said the new sections will be built first, and the old sections will be razed after inmates are moved into the new cells.

The corrections and detention millage is worth about $17 million to the county next year. White said roughly $2.5 million of that total is used for capital improvements, with the rest going toward jail operations. If property-tax revenue drops because of lower home values, income from the millage will fall and there will be less money for operations.

The correction facility has 1,170 beds and an annual budget of $36 million; 29,034 were booked at the jail in 2007.

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