Memphis-based rural jail firm presents options for new Columbia County detention center : KZHE News Blog
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Memphis-based rural jail firm presents options for new Columbia County detention center

by J.D. Bailey on 09/08/21

Two representatives from a Memphis-based construction and design firm visited with the Columbia County Quorum Court on Tuesday to present and discuss possible options for a new detention center within the county. The company, SouthBuild Team LLC (SB Team), which is actually a joint effort between Tennessee firms Smith-Doyle Construction, Inc. and Spirit Architecture, specializes in the construction of rural and small county justice centers. It has overseen around 80 projects across the region, including multiple jails in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi.

The presentation was part of an exploratory campaign set up last month by the Quorum Court in an attempt to remedy the county’s jailing conundrum. The talk was informative only and no official action to move forward with the firm has been made. 

But why a new detention center? According to county officials, the 82 Rawhide Road Columbia County Justice and Detention Center, while only 22 years old, is filled with recurring and nagging problems ranging from concrete foundational shifting that results in building creaks and cracks, to obsolete and leaky plumbing and roofing throughout the facility, as well as a host of other problems, including inadequate space to house inmates and an overall poor layout for functionality. Discussions among county government officials over the years have ranged from paying surrounding counties to house inmates -- which has been determined to be too expensive and logistically challenging -- to the construction of an all-new jail complex, but nothing has ever advanced past the talking phase. Tuesday’s presentation, however, was the first time in the Quorum Court has hosted a major firm for such an informative session.

SB Team members Mike Kelley, head construction supervisor at the company, and James Langford, lead architect, laid out a lengthy, yet informative pitch to the county. The reps stated that the firm uses procedures to help eliminate the hassle and unpredictability of hiring out individual contractors, designers, engineers, laborers, etc and that projects in the company's 24-year history have never gone over the initial price estimate. 

"Due to the process that we use, 100% of our projects have come within budgets," said Langford during his presentation. 

The Tennesse-based firm exclusively specializes in non-urban, small-community justice and detention centers. The company has built over $500 million in projects, according to its website, and supervised the construction of county jails complexes in nearby Lafayette, Nevada, Ouachita, and Miller Counties, as well as 29 other detention centers throughout the state.

“We do what I like to call country jails,” said Langford. “We don’t do the big 2,000-bed prisons. We go anywhere from 50 beds, all the way up to Washington County that's up to 800 beds. Rural counties have distinct needs that are different than big urban areas.”

The company advertises itself as a one-stop-shop of sorts, where clients are largely absolved from the task of hiring out individual contractors and sub-contractors. Instead, SB Team handles the minutia and day-to-day supervision associated with such an endeavor. To save on costs, no general contractor is hired. The move, according to Langford, eliminates 10%-15% of normal overhead expenses. In place, the firm sends a construction advisor who will relocate full-time to the building site.

“He will move here,” said Langford. “He will be on-site every single day until the project is done and we hand over the keys to your new jail.”

To comply with Arkansas laws, SB Team is typically hired out as a professional services provider and all trade contractor expenses within the project are sent out for bid. Traditionally, most of the skilled labor is sourced from within the area of a project, according to Langford.

“I’d say it’s about 80%,” he added.

The county, however, would still have oversight. All bids advertised for the project would receive final approval from the local government.

“In the end, you, the county, will determine who the trade contractors are,” said Langford.

Columbia County, according to Sheriff Mike Loe, ideally requires a 200-bed facility, complete with separate areas for male and female inmates, as well as a small section to house juveniles. The Columbia County Justice and Detention Center, which was designed in the late 1990s, is estimated to contain around 80-100 inmate beds currently, as well as a justice center for hosting local criminal court proceedings. It was not stated Tuesday whether a courtroom would be included in the potential design plans for a new jail complex, but Langford showed multiple instances of law offices and court areas included in their past builds. 

To ensure an efficient layout of a new facility, SB Team employs a common “apple-pie” internal design for all of its builds. The concentric blueprint featuring a central control hub allows for easy supervision and access to inmate areas with limited staffing. The design also allows for simple building add-ons down the road, if necessary. The layout of a facility is paramount for operating a modern detention center, according to Langford.

“Everything needs to focus on that during the design process,” he said. “It’s not about trying to build an architectural masterpiece -- its safety and staffing and everything radiates from that.”

The model has been proven to cut down on staff overhead and salary expenses, according to the architect. 

“Whatever the end cost of the project is, it will be 20% of the actual dollars you eventually spend,” Langford added. “The great majority of that 80% is staffing.”

On Tuesday, Langford presented a photograph of the Ouachita County Detention Complex that, he believed, could similarly fit Columbia County’s needs. The graphic showed the layout of the 193-bed, 44,000-square-foot facility. The complex was completed in 2012 for a final price tag of $11.77 million. The project was initially set for $13.59 million. 

If a project comes in under budget, as was the case of the Ouachita County Detention Complex, the budgetary surplus is returned to the county at a 70%-30% rate -- meaning the local government receives nearly three-fourths of the excess budget funds back, while the firm keeps the remaining one-third for its efforts.

The estimated cost for a new detention complex in Columbia County was not stated Tuesday, but the project could easily land in the $10-$15 million range, according to some unofficial estimates. 

The most common method of funding this type of endeavor, according to Langford, is via a county sales tax and use tax bond issue. The architect noted that most counties typically employ a half-cent sales and use tax to finance the bonds, then sunset half of the amount when the jail is paid off -- however long that may be. The remaining quarter-cent tax is then often used as a facility maintenance fund in perpetuity.

Currently, the combined sales and use tax rate in Columbia County is 8% (6.5% state and 1.5% county). Municipal construction bond repayments typically stretch from 10 to 30 years and carry an interest rate determined by the market at the time of issuance. 

The beginning-to-end process to build a new jail complex, according to Langford, is around two years. It has not been stated what would become of the current Columbia County Justice and Detention Center on Rawhide Road, should a new jail ever be built. 

If the county does elect to move forward with the firm, SB Team would be hired to begin specific architectural designs. According to County Judge Denny Foster, a new jail would likely be relocated to a new site near Magnolia featuring firmer ground, but a specific location was not stated. Foster only noted that the new parcel of land could be acquired by the county at no cost. 

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