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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. 

Not much city can do about poor Suddenlink service, says Magnolia mayor

by J.D. Bailey on 08/27/21

Magnolia Mayor Parnell Vann has heard the public’s outcry over the city’s sole cable television provider, but he says he can’t do much about it without significant outside investment. 

Suddenlink Communications, which operates Magnolia’s only cable tv and cable broadband service, is the cause of numerous headaches for the city government. The St. Louis-based provider from 2006 to 2016 bought Cox Communications, the former cable provider in Magnolia, and now operates without direct local competition. 

Complaints about the company commonly refer to poor service and lack of communication.  The cable provider also has no physical office in Magnolia. According to the mayor, these issues have been ongoing and there isn’t much he can do about it.  

“My phone has rung for more than a year,” he said. “I know that Suddenlink service is bad. … I don’t have the answer for it.” 

One issue that particularly affects Magnolia, is the trouble for local organizations, churches, and nonprofits to directly communicate with Suddenlink to post upcoming events and announcements on channel 13. The station serves as a community bulletin board of sorts for those without internet or smartphones, and often sometimes broadcasts local events. 

When a customer does call Suddenlink to complain, they are often transferred to someone in another country, according to social media posts. And since the former N. Jackson Street Suddenlink office in Magnolia closed a few years ago, the mayor said contacting anyone in the company with any real answers is beyond difficult.

"I was once sent to (a call center) in New Jersey, then I went to Nigeria," he said.  "...Suddenlink is a hard group to talk to. They’re hard for you as customers to talk to, and they’re hard for us at city hall to talk to.” 

On Thursday, the mayor experienced more of Suddenlink’s issues first-hand. 

 "Today, I tried to watch the news on what happened to our military in Afghanistan, and I couldn’t watch it next door in the fire department," he said during a meeting at City Hall complex. “I wish I could, but there's not much I can do about it."

The problems are not just local. Commenters from around the nation via Suddenlink’s official Facebook page echo similar problems to those in Magnolia. 

“Worst Company ever,” said one Texas commenter.

A West Virginia customer was a little more specific in her complaint, but the remarks were still negative.

“Day nine without phone or internet and can’t get any answers,” the commenter said. “I find it unbelievable that not one person can give an update and we are paying for services we are not getting.”

The mayor explained to the people of Magnolia that the city government has zero involvement with Suddenlink as a business, and has virtually no control over their competition. 

“We do not, and I do not run Suddenlink,” he added. 

Suddenlink is one of the largest cable, phone, and internet providers in the United States. Besides Arkansas, the company operates in markets in Arizona, California, Louisiana, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Texas, and West Virginia. And although the provider pays the City of Magnolia a franchise fee to use its cable lines on public property, the city has no ownership or control over the private business. 

Suddenlink is also the owner of the only major cable line network in the city, having acquired the infrastructure after its buyout of Cox Communications. This means the only way for another cable-based ISP (Internet Service Provider) or cable tv entity to enter Magnolia and compete, requires either buying out Suddenlink’s local share or installing an all-new network of cable or fiber-optic lines throughout the city. And with a customer base as small as Magnolia’s, the prospect of such an investment is expensive and somewhat unlikely. 

The mayor said Thursday that he wishes another company would enter the market, but he doesn’t know if that will happen. He also noted that many small cable companies have been bought out or absorbed by larger conglomerates, which presents even fewer competitive options to Suddenlink. 

“The only way to get away from Suddenlink is if (the city) buys them out and we start providing service -- or another cable company has got to come in a buy Suddenlink,” said Vann. 

The mayor also had some harsh words for the cable provider and openly invited in competitors. 

“Let me go ahead and upset Suddenlink,” he added. “If you’re out there and you would like to be in the cable business in Magnolia, Arkansas, please give them a call so my phone will quit ringing.”

Magnolia to use $2.2M in federal aid on water infrastructure; Council condemns 3 unsightly properties

by J.D. Bailey on 08/27/21

With half of the city’s scheduled $2.2 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds already issued, Magnolia Mayor Parnell Vann announced Thursday that its portion of federal COVID relief monies will be used to remove nearly all of Magnolia’s outdated cast iron mainline water system and replace it with synthetic, non-corrosive pipes.

The new water flow plan comes on the heels of a major replacement project already underway in the city’s central and southwestern regions to remedy a corrosion and water discoloration problem first reported in 2019. The city last year determined that decades-old cast iron lines were causing the issues.

Initially, main lines set for replacement stretched from portions of Lawton Circle to South Jefferson Street, but with Thursday’s announcement, now almost all of the city will receive new non-corrosive, non-metallic lines, according to the mayor.

“We’re going to replace the cast iron that’s left and put plastic (lines) in,” said Vann. “There will only be a small, small portion of the city left with iron after that -- but not much.”

The city official noted that areas south of E. North Street will receive most of the new lines. That portion of the city includes much of Wards I and II, but all city districts are included in the project.

“We’re going to get some of all of your wards,” said Vann while addressing Magnolia City Council members.

In all, the city’s water infrastructure investment could total around $4.5 million. The original phase of the water project was approved in July 2020 by the Magnolia City Council and funded by extending and refinancing a 1999 Water Resource Bond. On Thursday, the mayor stated that $1.1 million of the city’s federal relief aid had already been issued and the remaining $1.1 million should be coming soon. He also noted that all American Rescue Plan Act monies must be used on these types of investments.

“This money has got to be used on infrastructure, and that’s where we need it right now,” he added.

Provisions in the relief aid package also state that the funds must be used by a certain date, which eliminates the option for cities and counties to simply deposit the funds and wait to use them. City Treasurer Kim Newell on Thursday stated that she thought the federally-issued monies must be used by “2022 or so” and must follow state guidelines for spending.

The mayor noted that with most city sidewalk and street paving projects properly maintained, addressing municipal water issues was a top priority.

“The hardest part of this job is keeping good, clean drinking water,” he said.

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 was approved for passage in March by the United States Congress. The $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package earmarked $362 billion in direct funding payments to every city and county in the United States. The amounts dispersed to each community were tabulated based on population.

The federal aid package is the same measure that issued $1,400 stimulus checks to individual Americans earlier this year.


CONDEMNED HOMES


The Magnolia City Council on Thursday voted unanimously to condemn three local 'nuisance' properties that have become dangerous to the community.

The homes at 1514 Blackberry Street, 418 S. Pine Street, and 1138 Hazel Circle were all on the chopping block this month. According to the condemnation resolution passed Thursday, a certified letter will be sent to the condemned property owners informing them that they have 30 days to rehabilitate or remove the dilapidated structures. If these conditions are not met, the city will begin demolishing the structures and bill the owners for the costs.

If the municipality does not receive payment for the removal within 45 days, it will then auction off any debris or materials from the structures to reimburse itself for the razing efforts, according to the resolution. If the proceeds don’t cover the city’s incurred costs, the Magnolia city attorney will file a lien on the properties.

A fourth property at 616 Smith Street was initially on the list Thursday for condemnation, but Mayor Parnell Vann said the address had just been sold to a new owner. The city official, however, noted that, if the property was not cleaned up or cleared, the condemnation process would begin again.


In other City Council news:

- A resolution was passed to fund the purchase of a new dump truck at the Magnolia Street Department. The project was previously submitted for bid, and the purchase price came back at just over $85,000. The exact cost of the new truck was not stated publicly Thursday, but it will be funded by the Magnolia Street Department budget, according to Mayor Parnell Vann. The purchase of the new vehicle is not expected to strap the city agency for cash.

“The street department makes money for the city,” said the mayor.

To help offset the cost of the new truck, two former street department dump trucks were recently sold for a total of $35,000. The new truck is also expected to have a service life of 15-20 years, according to Magnolia Street Department head Jerry Lewis.

“I think this is a good investment for us down the road,” he said.

- A water billing ordinance was passed Thursday for “housekeeping” purposes, according to Mayor Parnell Vann. In it, the document re-stated the city’s charging and late-fee policy.

The mayor explicitly stated three times Thursday that water rates are not going up and that the water ordinance was a “paper matter” only.

For any billing questions or concerns, Magnolia water customers are encouraged to calmly call the Magnolia Utilities office at 870-234-2022. Vann stated Thursday that any callers using profanity or rude language on their water calls will not be tolerated.

He also stated that, if a customer’s water bill is lost in the mail or accidentally misplaced and he or she is not commonly late on bill payments, the water office will work to resolve the issue without penalty. However, if a customer in this situation uses obscene remarks to office personnel, the issue will not be handled the same way, according to the city official.

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