Concerns addressed; Harbin happy with jail plan
By MIKE CORN
It took an architect just 10 minutes to resolve Ellis County Sheriff Ed Harbin's "safety and security concerns" about a proposal to expand the county's jail.
Prior to that, he didn't know if he'd be able to support the jail expansion or even vote for a sales tax to pay for it.
Following Thursday afternoon's telephone call to Treanor architect Andy Pitts, Harbin said he's now ready to support the plan and will vote for the sales tax when it's put before the voters, possibly on a spring or summer ballot.
Harbin had been rebuffed in his request to meet with the county's architect, something Ellis County Administrator Greg Sund said wouldn't happen, arguing it's foolish to have anything but preliminary plans for the jail before voters decide if the county even will have the money to pay for the improvements.
While Sund and Harbin were at loggerheads on the issue of talking to the architect, Ellis County Commissioner Barbara Wasinger intervened -- after The Hays Daily News asked Sund what it might mean if Harbin wasn't able to support the expansion of the county's jail.
Sund said he didn't know, suggesting the project could move ahead without the jail, leaving only the remodeling of the courthouse and construction of a building to house rural fire and the ambulance service.
But then Wasinger met with Harbin, listened to his concerns and said she would see to it that a meeting was arranged.
The next day Wasinger, Sund, Harbin and Ellis County Undersheriff Bruce Hertel huddled around a telephone in the emergency operations center in the basement of the Law Enforcement Center -- two floors beneath the 32-inmate facility at the heart of the call.
"I think it's a deal," Harbin said after the call concluded.
Harbin had grave concerns about the architect's plan of putting two 20-inmate cells in the jail.
"Could we go down to four 10-bed pods?" Harbin asked at the outset of the call.
"Yes," Pitts said. "We can easily turn any of those pods into a different configuration."
Harbin also voiced concern about the design's reliance on each cell being capable of holding two inmates, something Pitts said he simply did to meet national criteria for space.
Pitts also said he'd be able to design cells with whatever type of doors Harbin and his jail staff wanted.
The drawings, he said, are little more than boilerplate designs offering a glimpse into what would work in the space that's available and are enough to get an idea on what it might cost.
If the sales tax passes, Pitts said, a team from Treanor will meet with Harbin, Hertel and the jail staff to create a final plan reflecting what they want in a jail.
"We are far from completing the project at this time," he said.
"Not having ever done this before," Harbin said, "I just had questions."
"That answered my question," Hertel said.
"You've got everything you need?" Wasinger asked Hertel and Harbin.
"We're good," Harbin said.
Hertel did, however, ask if anything they had talked about dramatically would increase the costs.
"There's nothing that's been mentioned today that is outside of the scope of what we're talking about," Pitts said. "Our goal is to work within the scope that's going to match the budget."
After the meeting, Harbin said he liked the idea of the architect sitting down with the sheriff's office to design the jail, something he said didn't happen before the preliminary plan was drawn up.
"I was given the impression of 'here's the plan,' " he said
Sund said the architect was supposed to visit with offices affected, but he didn't know if that actually took place in the case of the sheriff's office.
There has, however, been a steady stream of designs for expanding the capacity of the jail, including one in 2011 that was embraced at the time by a committee charged with finding a solution to the county's lack of space.
"We need to make it the best possible project we can," Harbin said of meeting with the architects if voters approve the sales tax. "My questions are answered."
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While no date has been set for a vote on the half-percent sales tax, Sund said it could be as early as May.
The exact cost of the project won't be known until it's put out for bids, but preliminary estimates by the architect peg the cost at somewhere between $7.4 million and $12.6 million, well below the $14.5 million cap that's been imposed by the county commission.
The jail's portion of the cost would be somewhere between $5 million and $7 million.
The courthouse remodeling project could add another $2.6 million and a new heating system could boost the total by $1 million.
While the ambulance and rural fire building is expected to cost about $3.5 million, Sund is predicting the total cost will be between $11.5 million and $12 million.