MONROE, GA – The Walton Industrial Building Authority voted Tuesday to continue to explore options to raise revenue bonds to construct a new jail in Walton County. The amount discussed was not to exceed $115 million.
The five members of the authority, former retired Superior Court Judge Eugene Benton, who was voted Chairman of the Authority, Georgia Walton Academy head Gary Hobbs, Walton County Chamber president Teri Smiley, Monroe Mayor John Howard and Walton County Board of Commissioners Chairman David Thompson were present at the Historic Walton County Courthouse for the meeting.
Prior to it getting underway, bond attorney Jim Woodward of Gray, Pannell and Woodward, the company tasked with exploring the raising of the revenue bonds, explained the function of the WIBA. Woodward said that the WIBA in Walton County was one of the original ones formed after the Act was created by the Georgia General Assembly and that such authorities have unique powers, one of which was the power to issue revenue bonds to finances projects, such as water and sewer projects.
“And one of the projects is jails,” Woodward said. “It can issue revenue bonds to finance a jail.”
He also put to rest any misinformation that the WIBA was largely defunct and had not been active in years. It had in fact been instrumental in raising funds for the expansion of Hitachi as well as Leggett & Platt. But in those cases, although the bonds were secured by the county, the repayment of the loans were the responsibility of the respective companies. In the case of the proposed jail in Walton County, local taxpayers would be on the hook for it.
However, Thompson made it clear that this was something he believed is very much needed and he intended to explore this option.
“This is in the taxpayers best interest and we need it,” he said. “We need this and I’m pushing ahead.”
The current jail has been overcrowded for several years and has remained in planning stages since 2009. Currently there is $29 million available for the jail, raised primarily through the 2011 Special Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) referendum that earmarked “$27 million for the “acquisition, construction and equipping of a new jail.”
But now, a decade later, a new jail is significantly more expensive. The proposal being considered on property off Baker Street and adjacent to the Walton County Government Buildings on Hammond Drive, would take about 3 years to complete and would accommodate 800 inmates. But Thompson said it would serve the community for the next 150 years as it could be expanded to serve up to 2,000 inmates.
Howard expressed his hesitancy to vote for a tax increase for the entire county when he had only been voted in by Monroe residents. He also noted that Monroe was not happy about the location and wanted to know what was going to happen to the old jail since nobody wanted two jails in the city of Monroe.
Thompson said that was not the intention, however, the cost was “going to be what the cost was going to be.” It had already gone up from requiring bond revenue estimates of $100 million in March 2021 to $112 million at the current time. There was an allowance of a potential of $3 million for contingencies. Thompson also noted that the jail was significantly utilized by residents from Monroe.
“About 43 % of the inmates are from Monroe and you have 13 % of the County population in Monroe,” Thompson said.
Howard did vote to at least explore the cost of raising revenue bonds to build a new jail. “I don’t think it makes sense to not explore the cost,” he said.
Thompson said at a .00157 mill increase, it would only be about $58.44 per person in additional annual taxes to each person. That, however was on an estimation if each man, woman and child was hit with the cost. It would be significantly higher per household. The 2019 census estimation put the households in Walton County at about 35,000, which over 30 years on a $5,844 million per year repayment would amount to an average of about $167 per household per year in additional taxes. The actual amount, of course, would depend on the value of the home.
The vote taken Tuesday was only to continue to explore the costs involved. Once that is done, it has to be voted on by the full Walton County Board of Commissioners before returning to the WIBA for another vote. Woodward said once the actual costs are established, it has to go back to the BOC and approved by the commissioners before coming back to the WIBA again to approve it.
“This is just the first step,” Woodward said. “We will have four meetings between now and then. It is all conditional on closing.”
Citizens who attended the meeting, and had made their displeasure known prior to the chairman calling the meeting to order, were unable to voice their opinions during the official proceedings. They will, however, be able to sign up for public speaking at the BOC meetings.