CLINTON—An Anderson County committee on Thursday recommended taking steps to ask voters in August whether state and federal prisoners should be housed in the county jail, which is being expanded.
Some county commissioners say that housing pre-trial federal inmates could help cover jail costs, while other county officials, including the mayor, say that they don’t want to get into the federal prison business.
On Thursday, the Anderson County Legislative Committee recommended that the Anderson County Commission consider sending the question to voters in a non-binding referendum in August.
But there are several hurdles. First, 11 of the 16 county commissioners would have to approve the move, possibly during their daytime meeting on Jan. 21, Commission Chairman Chuck Fritts said. Then, a private act would have to be approved in the Tennessee General Assembly in Nashville by early June to put the question on the August ballot.
The referendum was proposed by Anderson County Commissioner Dusty Irwin, who represents District 3, which includes the Andersonville, Fairview, Norris, and Glen Alpine precincts. Irwin said his constituents live in the district that includes the Anderson County Detention Facility, which is next to the Clinch River and North Charles G. Seivers Boulevard northeast of downtown Clinton.
“I am looking for a far better solution than filling (the jail) up with federal prisoners,” Irwin said. “It’s a fool’s errand.”
Irwin said the jail will have a total capacity of 566 beds when the 212-bed expansion is completed. If the county didn’t house state or federal prisoners, then empty parts of the jail could be used for other, better purposes, and the county wouldn’t have to hire as many workers, including jailers and cooks, Irwin said. He said a tax rate increase approved several years ago is being used to pay for the jail, but the county might save money by paying fewer people to work there.
“We have built a jail that is too big, and now we’re trying to stuff it full of federal prisoners,” Irwin said. “We don’t belong in the federal prisoner business.”
Irwin said it costs the county $65 per day to house state prisoners and $70 per day to keep federal inmates. But the county is only reimbursed $37 per day for state prisoners and $55 per day for federal inmates. In both cases, citizens will be asked to make up the difference, Irwin said.
But County Commissioner Steve mead said there are several thousand unserved warrants in Anderson County, and the jail will still fill up, even if no state or federal prisoners are housed there. The state will continue to house prisoners in Anderson County, said Mead, who has objected for several years to keeping the state prisoners there if their costs aren’t at least covered.
“We cannot make the assumption that if we don’t have the federal prisoners, then we’ll save money,” said Mead, who represents District 6, which includes the Oak Ridge City Hall, Robertsville, and West Hills precincts.
He said the choice is between paying for all of the prisoners’ costs in the case of county prisoners, or being reimbursed for part of the costs for state and federal inmates.
“I don’t think we have any choice, but do have a choice between paying all the cost or part of the cost,” Mead said.
Anderson County Mayor Terry Frank said she supports the referendum.
“This is a major enterprise that the county is proposing to enter,” Frank said, referring to the question of housing federal prisoners. “What we’re proposing to do is enter a brand-new business. All the numbers that I’ve looked at say it’s a losing business.”
Blount County houses federal prisoners, but the detention facility there is already at maximum capacity, and the county is having to expand its jail again, Frank said. She said there are other options that could be studied, including one proposal that could allow Anderson County to open its expanded jail with fewer staff members.
A few commissioners said residents voted for commissioners to make the tough decisions. Fritts voted against the proposed jail referendum. He said revenues are needed to pay for new jailers at the expanded jail; otherwise, a property tax rate increase could be required.
“The citizens elected us to do what’s best for the county,” Fritts said. “We were voted into office to do our job.”
He suggested he’d rather consider housing state and federal prisoners than raise taxes to cover operations costs at the expanded jail.
“I’d rather do this than put an extra tax burden on our citizens,” Fritts said.
County Commissioner Whitey Hitchcock joined Fritts in voting against the proposed referendum. Other committee members voted for it. Besides Fritts, Hitchcock, Irwin, and Mead, other committee members at Thursday’s meeting were Tim Isbel and Steve Emert.