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County to consider closing jail

NATCHEZ — Adams County’s residents may one day be the owners of three jails that house no prisoners.

The Adams County Board of Supervisors have already discussed the possibility of shutting down the juvenile justice building, and the original county jail now serves as offices.

Monday the board voted to begin the initial inquiries into what steps would have to be taken and how much it would cost to privatize the county’s adult jail, which is currently operated by the Adams County Sheriff’s Office.

Supervisor Mike Lazarus brought the idea to the board’s attention, saying he had spoken with Adams County Correctional Center’s Warden Vance Laughlin about the possibility of the prison hosting the county’s prisoners.

ACCC is a federal immigration prison operated by Corrections Corporation of America.

The reason for the inquiry is that the maintenance costs of the current county jail, which was built in the 1970s, may soon be cost-prohibitive, Lazarus said.

“It is going to get where it costs more to operate it than it is to rebuild it, but rebuilding something like that would probably cost us $7-$8 million,” Lazarus said. “It’s got doors that they can’t keep locked, motors that are getting burned up — our maintenance man spends about half his time in there.”

Things may be cheaper in the long run if the county is able to allow a private organization to operate the local corrections system, Lazarus said.

“The cost savings there is it takes liability off the county, and (CCA) has a full kitchen out there they can feed them a lot cheaper than we can,” Lazarus said.

“It cuts down on employees for the county or helps put those people (working in the jail) out there doing what they need to be doing — fighting crime.”

“That’s why the federal government is contracting with CCA or people like that, because it’s cheaper to pay somebody else to do it.”

If Adams County’s prisoners are housed at the CCA facility, Lazarus said they would be segregated from the federal prisoners in a satellite building.

Board Attorney Scott Slover said he has spoken with Sheriff Chuck Mayfield, and that the sheriff has expressed a willingness to outsource the jail.

Slover also emphasized that at this point all the county is doing is inquiring about the possibility of contracting with CCA, and no commitment has been made at this point.

Lazarus also said that while continuous renovations to the current facility might not be cost effective, the county could possibly renovate the jail space for other purposes similar to how the original jail was transformed into the county’s executive offices and storage space.

In other news:

• Justice Court Judge Charlie Vess appeared before the supervisors to request they consider what can be done about the justice court courtroom.

The supervisors have twice before suggested they would do something about the tiny space, which the judge said is the busiest courtroom in the county, as all criminal matters first go through it before being assigned to a higher court or prosecuted there. Justice court also hears civil cases.

“We have a courtroom that was given a fire rating of 17 people; this room itself has 30 chairs, so this would make a better courtroom than the one we are currently using,” Vess said, gesturing to the supervisors’ boardroom.

“The justice court courtroom is currently in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and if someone comes in with a wheelchair, they have difficulty getting in.

“On some days we have 30-40 cases, and should the facility catch on fire or a fight break out, we could have a serious problem when we have 30 people packed in there, down the hall and up the stairs.”

Supervisors President Darryl Grennell said he has spoken with County Prosecutor Barrett Martin about the courtroom situation recently, and he has inquired if it would be possible for justice court to meet in the county courtroom in the courthouse, which is across the street from the justice court building.

Slover said that while the county courtroom is busy, the days that justice court meets the courtroom is usually free and that, if the need arose, justice court could still use its current space.

Vess said he was “amiable” to the idea.

“The only other avenue we have is to measure about knocking out two walls, and we would have to get the cooperation of two other judges,” Vess said.

Slover said he would speak with the other judges about the possibility of moving the court’s proceedings.

• Vess also spoke with the supervisors about the long-standing issue of unpaid justice fines. The judge said the county has between $1.5 and $2 million in fines that have not been collected, but he does not know the exact amount because as judge he does not statutorily have the authority to seek that information or send out contempt notices.

Vess has been having an extra hearing specially for contempt of court in which he tries to collect unpaid fines, he said, but at the last hearing only one person showed up — and that was a case he personally set up.

The county’s fine collection agency gets a list of all contempt cases, so it should not be a problem for the supervisors to forward that information to the appropriate county employees in the justice court  to set up contempt hearings, Vess said.

The supervisors instructed Justice Court Clerk Audrey Bailey to work with Vess on the matter, but they also implored the judge to make those with fines pay immediately rather than giving them time to raise the funds.

“We can’t collect these fines,” Lazarus said. “It is not in our power to collect these fines. You stay until you pay.”

“Until the judges get tough on these people, it is not going to work if they don’t make the people pay the fine or go to jail, it’s not going to work. If they know that if they come in and there is a fine issued and they don’t get to leave until it’s paid, they will pay the money.”

Vess responded said that even if he adopted such a policy, he is not the only judge in the county.

“You are not a board of judges where it takes a majority, you are a judge who is in charge of your courtroom,” Grennell said.

Slover likewise said those who are caught not paying fines should face elevated penalties.

“When you catch them for not paying their fine, you need to punish them for not paying their fine, you can’t just let them pay their fines and not do anything,” he said.

• The supervisors approved a certificate of emergency for a road repair done in Anna’s Bottom due to flooding during the Christmas holidays.

• The supervisors agreed to allow Lazarus to find out prices for placing marquees denoting the entrance to the Natchez-Adams County Port and the businesses located therein at both the new Government Fleet Road entrance and the old River Terminal Road entrance.

• The supervisors voted to rename the old end of Government Fleet Road, which has no name since it has been cut off from the road due to the Government Fleet Road extension into the port, to Jones Sawmill Road.

J.M. Jones Lumber is the only occupants of the newly named section of road, Emergency 911 Coordinator Stan Owens said.

• The supervisors voted to ask insurance agent Jack Stephens to serve on the city-county fire protection program committee. They also asked that the presidents of the local water associations serve on the committee or designate someone else to serve in their stead.

The committee’s purpose will be to craft a comprehensive fire protection plan for the county inside and outside of the Natchez municipal limits.

• The supervisors voted to allow county Information Technology Director Lance Bishop to advertise for prices to replace computer terminals, printers, servers and other IT devices that need to be updated.

The average useful life of a personal computer is five years, and many of the county’s computers are eight years old, Bishop said.

Other equipment that needs to be replaced is no longer supported or cannot be upgraded, he said.

• The supervisors named their officers, attorney and engineer for 2013, though no changes were made in the county’s leadership.

Grennell will remain president, Lazarus vice-president, Slover board attorney and Jim Marlow with Jordan, Kaiser and Sessions as county engineer.