BY MELANIE BUCK –
Citizens against the proposed jail tax are questioning the economic feasibility of the new construction of a $10.9 million facility vs. the former Mena Middle School building. Supporters of the idea believe retrofitting the vacant building at the north end of Mena Street to meet required state standards would be more cost-effective for the county than the new construction being sought by Polk County Sheriff Mike Godfrey. Supporters of the tax, along with Godfrey, are hoping voters will understand that time is critical as they fear a shutdown of the current facility.
The Mena Middle School building is no longer owned by the Mena School District but by Walter Deetz of Mena, who not only supports the idea, but is willing to finance the $1.7 million building interest free.
Mr. Deetz said that he gave the Sheriff and other county officials a tour of the facility several months ago and that he offered the property to the county. “I would let the county have it for what I have in it…$1.7 million, and finance it with no interest. There’s $800,000 in the roof alone,” said Deetz. He added, “They could buy it and piecemeal it together with some amount of money each year. I’m sure it can be retrofitted with no problem.”
Deetz also said that the Sheriff’s current plan is for a 25,000 sq. ft. building and the old Middle School building is close to 70,000 sq. ft. Among the benefits cited by Deetz were that “the county offices could go into the ’42 section and the prisoners could be put in the 60’s section.” By ’42 section, Deetz is referring to the original part of the building that was constructed in 1942, and the addition that was added in the 1960’s. There is also another section that was built sometime in the 1990’s.
“I’m not trying to sell. I’ve had a lot of people interested in renting it but I’ve always felt it would be good for the county. I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t want it; they have parking for the city, the property could still be used by the public, and there’s plenty of room for expansion,” said Deetz. He added, “It’s not about making money, it’s about saving it.” Mr. Deetz, along with other concerned citizens, believes the monolithic style building would be a good fit for the jail and that the location, being across the street from the current facilities, would be better than a new jail being across town.
However, Sheriff Godfrey said finding someone to retrofit the building isn’t as easy as these citizens might think. “First you have to have someone come look at it, draw up the design, and then find someone to do the work.” Godfrey said that all of the doors and windows would need to be resized and that there would be problems on where to run wires and conduit because it becomes a health hazard to prisoners, as well as visitors.
Godfrey, who expressed his admiration for Deetz and his community mindedness, said that while the building would be excellent for offices, he doesn’t feel it would be in the best interest for the county to be used as a jail, giving the example of the recent renovation of the Queen Wilhelmina Lodge. “They decided to retrofit the lodge at Queen Wilhelmina and now they’ve gone through two contractors and gone over budget and months over their completion date,” an error that he is trying to avoid by starting out new. An additional point of concern for the county – time.
“The Quorum Court formed a jail committee and they’ve been on board through this whole process. The committee decided to approach it from this standpoint because time is a critical issue of getting this done before they shut our jail down. The committee decided the best course of action was to locate some property, find a builder, and build a new jail rather than trying to retrofit. We just don’t know what it would cost to retrofit the school but we do know what it’s going to cost to build a new jail,” said Godfrey.
The Sheriff also pointed out that all of the plans have to be submitted to the state and be approved, taking more time. Godfrey explained that the county sought the assistance of Western Arkansas Planning and Development in soliciting architectural and construction firms for the new construction and admitted that firms specializing in retrofitting were not included in the search.
“It’s an option that’s an unknown versus an option that I can go to the voters and say ‘this is what we’re going to do and this is how much it’s going to cost,’” explained Godfrey. “One of the biggest complaints that I heard from when (former) Sheriff Mike Oglesby tried to get a tax passed back in 2001, was that there was no information. Where are they going to build it? What are the plans going to be? How much is it going to cost? He was asking for a certain amount of money but didn’t have the information. So, I tried from the very beginning to tell people where we’re going to build it, how much it’s going to cost, and exactly what the plans will be. We want the people to know exactly what they’re getting for the dollars that they spend. That’s one reason we went with SouthBuild. In 17 years of just jail construction, they have not gone over budget one time. When SouthBuild says $10.9 million, they mean $10.9 million or less. And, when they build under budget, that money stays with the county. It’s not like they make extra profit. They give a price and that’s what they stick with.”
Early voting for the two taxes began Tuesday and will remain open from 8 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. at the Polk County Office Complex until Monday evening, May 11. There will be no Saturday or Sunday voting in this session. All other voting stations, with the exception of two, will be open on Tuesday, May 12, from 7:30 a.m. – 7:30 p.m. County Clerk Teri Harrison said that the Grannis and Vandervoort stations will not be open. Grannis voters need to vote at Wickes and Vandervoort voters will vote with Cove.