The Baldwin County Commission’s 2020 budget will include a $35 million appropriation for a new jail, according to Finance Director Ron Cink, who said the timing is right to borrow the money because of low interest rates. In 2014, Sheriff Hoss Mack joined municipalities in South Baldwin County to discuss the addition of a regional jail in that area, but the plan never materialized and the current proposal is to build a new jail adjacent to the existing Baldwin County Corrections Center in Bay Minette.
In March, Mack told the commission there was “a little bit of an uptick this past year in our jail population,” with an average of 550 inmates overnight in the 650-bed jail. In May, he said there has been a “300 percent increase in involuntary commitments” at the existing jail in recent years, as state financial resources and facilities for mental health patients have been cut to historic lows.
Further, Mack has reported the existing jail suffers from a “catastrophic plumbing issue which is causing daily damage to the facility and is causing an immediate security risk,” a problem that is being addressed separately according to an item on the County Commission’s Sept. 3 agenda. In response, Mack requested the commission approve a contract with PH&J Architects Inc. for consulting and project-management services in the amount of 7.2 percent of the construction cost for emergency water pipe replacement.
In the plumbing project, Mack gained an exemption from the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) to receive “informal bids,” not publicly advertised, “due to the security risk of advertising the building designs and blueprints of the Corrections Center during the competitive bid process.” According to a July 3 letter from ALEA Secretary Hal Taylor, “the plans for this project should be considered ‘Sensitive Security Information’ and treated as confidential materials.”
There is no word yet on whether the $35 million jail will be bid in a similarly confidential manner, but Commission Chairman Skip Gruber said the commission will have oversight over both projects. Cink said the new jail will be designed to house an additional 300 to 400 inmates, although it may be built out incrementally.
“Now is the time,” Cink said last week. “The other jail gets close to capacity … this positions the commission and law enforcement quite well for the next 20 years.”
Cink acknowledged the county also has an agreement with the federal government to house federal inmates, but couldn’t immediately disclose how much revenue it generates annually. The location of a new facility adjacent to an existing one “makes sense logistically,” he said, adding there are considerations for maximizing efficiencies in feeding and laundry protocols, as well as its proximity to the county courthouse.
“It has been discussed several times, but not in the detail that this commission is addressing it,” Cink said. “Sooner or later they knew with the increase in population, you have to do something. Not that everybody needs to go to jail, but the increase in people and all the events along the coast and whatnot, that creates the need.”
The proposal drives up Baldwin County’s overall budget from $182 million last year to $215 million this year. It reflects increases in ad valorem taxes of about 8 percent over last year and sales tax increases of 3 to 5 percent.
Cink said the county carries an existing $87.7 million of long-term debt, approximately 36 percent of its constitutional debt limit. The county’s current bond rating is AA+.
Cink said there were “no substantive changes to department budgets,” but the county is still awaiting word from the state on how to split tax revenue between the Baldwin County School System and the new Gulf Shores School System.
“They will tell me what percentage goes to each,” he said. “I haven’t received documentation from state but I’m anticipating it any day.”
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