The Mobile County Commission had to throw out the only viable bid it received for much-needed upgrades at Metro Jail — further delaying a suite of projects the county has been planning for years.
As Lagniappe has reported, Mobile County set aside $15 million more than two years ago for improvement projects at Metro including an expansion of the medical wing, the creation of a segregated area for mentally ill inmates, 360-degree perimeter fencing and a larger sally port and docket room.
Warden Trey Oliver has previously said all of these upgrades are critical to addressing a number of safety and space concerns at the facility. Just last month, an inmate managed to sneak a loaded weapon into the jail’s holding area on a day when the docket and processing area was particularly busy.
It seems those projects will have to wait a little longer now that commissioners have thrown the first round of bids out after the only viable option came in nearly $10 million over budget. While three bidders pre-qualified, only one — White Spunner Construction — submitted a bid for around $24 million.
Mobile County Commission President Jerry Carl said during a meeting this week that all of the planned upgrades to the facility were “desperately needed.” According to Facilities Manager Tyler Martin, the county’s engineering staff is now working to streamline the project and bring in additional bidders to help reduce costs.
“We’re not intending to eliminate anything in the plans,” Martin said. “This is all in response to a [National Institute for Jail Operations] assessment of needed items the county had done [in 2015].”
It’s unclear what a new timetable for the second round of bids might be, but the news of the delay comes on the heels of other problems caused by long-standing structural deficiencies at Metro. Last week, the Mobile County Sheriff’s office, which operates Metro Jail, confirmed that 36 federal inmates had to be transported to jails in Baldwin and Conecuh counties due to several malfunctioning locks.
Officials said the malfunction allowed inmates to manipulate the locks and open cell doors. Yet, inmates “popping locks” has been an issue at Metro for decades now. One inmate disabled a lock on camera, at Oliver’s request, earlier this year to show Lagniappe reporters how quickly it could be done.
“We have mechanical and infrastructure issues here that we cannot throw money at fast enough,” Oliver said after news of last week’s malfunctioning locks were first reported. “We are understaffed, overpopulated and dealing with a much more violent inmate than 20 years ago.”
According to Oliver, the 36 relocated federal inmates will continue to stay at the facilities in Baldwin and Conecuh counties until the lock problem is resolved. Because they’re federal prisoners, it doesn’t cost Mobile County anything to house them there, but Metro is losing money it would otherwise be paid by the U.S. Marshals Service for housing those federal prisoners in Mobile.
Despite lingering problems at Metro and an ongoing investigation by the United States Department of Justice, the county has put a lot of money toward upgrading the facility and plans to continue doing so.
Specifically, since 2008, it has allocated more than $2 million to upgrading and maintaining doors and locks at the jail. That includes $691,000 in annual maintenance, $976,000 in door and lock improvements and another $500,000 committed to a third phase of upgrades last year.
“The Mobile County Commission is strong in its commitment to the Sheriff and those under his command,” Carl said in a written statement. “We will do all we can to protect their safety and the safety of the inmates in Metro Jail.”
Commission approves plan for additional gas tax revenue
Though it didn’t have any hand in passing Alabama’s controversial new gas tax increase, Mobile County stands to benefit when it goes into effect on Sept. 1. This week, county engineer Brian Kegley laid out how the county plans to spend the millions it’s projected to receive in the coming years.
A portion of the 10-cent increase — a 6-cent initial hike — will begin being collected this coming week, and two more staggered increases of 2 cents are scheduled to take place in 2020 and 2021. In all, legislators have said Alabama is projected to collect an additional $320 million annually by that time.
According to Kegley, the county will be collecting money from the new tax as well, which under the law would have to be used for road and bridge projects. He said the county is expected to see $2.5 million this year, $3.3 million next year and up to $4.2 million a year once the tax is fully implemented in 2021.
The passage of the 2019 gas tax increase, which was the first of its kind since 1992, was not popular among many residents of the Yellowhammer State, but Kegley said counties across Alabama stand to benefit from the “shot in the arm” this funding could bring to various road projects.
In Mobile County, Kelgey said the engineering department plans to put that money toward various resurfacing projects, which should free up funds allocated to similar projects through the county’s pay-as-you-go program so they can go toward other drainage and paving projects.
In other news, commissioners on Monday officially named Glenn Hodge county administrator — a position he’s held in an interim capacity since former administer John Pafenbach retired in January after 15 years overseeing the county’s day-to-day operations.
A retired U.S. Coast Guard reserve petty officer, Hodge has worked in the county government since 1999 and served as the assistant county administrator since 2007. He beat out 10 finalists from across the country, but commissioners seemed to place value on the experience Hodge has in the role he’s taking on.
“We’re just used to working with him. Glenn is very knowledgeable, he’s been around and he’s got a smooth air about him. He doesn’t panic under pressure,” Carl said. “We had some excellent candidates, but we’re familiar with Glenn and we respect his caliber of work and his commitment to Mobile County.”
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