Okeechobee County commissioners back jail improvements

OKEECHOBEE — The Okeechobee County Board of County Commissioners endorsed Thursday an expansion of the aging, overcrowded Okeechobee County Jail at a cost of $31.8 million.

The option chosen is a new jail pod, renovations of two existing pods, the medical clinic and kitchen, the administration offices for the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office and the Alderman Building.

There were three options proposed to commissioners by Joseph Mrak of Securitetech, who conducted a jail feasibility study in 2008.

Things have changed since then, namely more prisoners. The economic downturn would have been a good time to build, but nobody had any money. Now with the economy improving, costs of construction are going up. Another factor to higher costs is a lack of workers in construction in Florida.

An additional housing pod would accommodate 196 inmates. That pod alone would cost $21.75 million.

The female population in the jail has risen the most. The national percentage of women in jail has risen from under 10 percent 20 years ago, to 30 percent today.

The desired plan includes a larger medical unit and classrooms to train and teach inmates skills and maybe cut down recidivism rates.

Another option would be a new jail and sheriff’s office. It would measure 146,000 square feet and cost over $43 million.

Any project would have to be financed by municipal bonds or a ballot proposal to create a new taxing millage for debt service.

Nationally, jail populations are about 80 percent sentenced inmates. There are no places for the mentally ill so they wind up in jail.

Drug arrests continue to rise and Okeechobee is not alone in that fact. Rural areas around the country are struggling to find solutions that work for them when it comes to incarceration.

Commissioner Bryant Culpepper said too much focus has been placed on the rights of jail inmates.

“We have forgotten about the rights of people that fund jails. For many, the jail is a better place with good meals.” Mr. Culpepper said.

Another possibility is the Alderman Building and utilizing it as the administration offices for the sheriff’s office.

Commissioner David Hazellief said he supports renovation of the Alderman Building and building a new jail pod. He supported doing it all at once.

He said county taxpayers won’t have to pay much because of new growth and property taxes generated by the Florida Power and Light Clean Energy Center, which is a natural gas power plant northeast of Fort Drum.

Sheriff Noel Stephen said the use of the Alderman Building would delay the need for the addition of the sheriff administration. He cautioned commissioners to think long and hard about finances.

“Five million dollars today could be $7 million in five years,” he pointed out.

He went on to say the county needs to be frugal and be accountable to the taxpayers.

Commissioner Culpepper suggested using the Alderman Building to house females.

Chairman Burroughs said renovations of the Alderman Building seem to be a preferred option.

The public safety coordination council supported the option of building a new Pod, renovation of two jail Pods, medical and food service for 196 beds. They have been working on ways to reduce the jail population with a mental health court, expanded drug courts and other proposals.

Most of the inmates in the county jail have some kind of drug problem or a mental illness. Some jails have emphasized drug treatment counseling and other alternatives to incarceration to better utilize taxpayer dollars.

A recent study by the Vera Institute of Justice and the MacArthur Foundation Safety and Justice Challenge found 30 percent of the 2.2 million people behind bars are housed in 3,000 county jails. Jail population growth has been greatest in smaller counties. Many of those in jail are awaiting trial on minor drug charges.

Prosecutors argue that drug-dependent individuals who have committed crimes are a risk to public safety if released. Some experts argue the inability to make bail, rather than criminal risk, is one reason pretrial populations are so high.

The study urged jails to eliminate money bail for more minor offenses by issuing summons and citations to appear in court for minor crimes. They argue detention in jails should be restricted to those considered high risk to the community.

The Alderman Building measures about 10,000 square feet. The renovation cost of that building could exceed $1.2 million.

“We know growth is coming. It’s a big impact for taxpayers. It is a 25-30 year fix. What is best for taxpayer dollars?” asked Sheriff Stephen.

Commissioner Brad Goodbread said the county would get more time out of the jail and administration renovation.

“It will provide the most long-term solution to the dollars spent. It gives us the most bang for the buck,” he offered.

Tax bills could increase by less than a mill each year by this expanded jail. The current mill rate raises $1.7 million.

One mill equals $1 for every $1,000 of taxable property.

Chairman Burroughs said it makes sense to do all the projects at once and finance the entire project.

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