County commissioners from Garvin and McClain Counties came together in a special joint meeting August 14 to consider partnering to build a regional detention center.
The project, if approved, would allow the two jurisdictions to combine resources to build and staff a jail facility that would provide desperately needed bed space and modernized detention capabilities for both counties.
During the August 14 special meeting, commissioners heard from Larry Goldberg of Goldberg Group Architects, a Missouri-based firm that specializes in justice architecture and jail facilities. Goldberg was hired by the Garvin County Board of Commissioners in March to complete a feasibility study for building a new detention center for Garvin County.
“We’re thrilled at the possibility of having a multijurisdictional facility here in the offing,” Goldberg told commissioners as he presented details of what such a facility might look like, based on drafts of the feasibility study already done in Garvin County and preliminary estimates he had been provided for McClain County.
Goldberg stressed that all the numbers presented were samples, not final figures.
“We’re going to be doing a lot of homework in the next few weeks, obviously, trying to help McClain County catch up in the process. We spent a lot of time with Garvin, and we want to make sure we cover any and all the needs McClain would have, even 15 to 20 years down the line,” Goldberg said.
The draft proposal presented by Goldberg is for a 40,000 square foot facility, consisting of about 270 beds, which could be expanded later if needed to nearly double that size.
Garvin County’s jail currently has about 70 beds and stays at capacity. McClain County has 50 beds and is having to contract with other facilities to house detainees beyond that number.
“We need a hundred beds, today,” McClain County commissioner Wilson Lyles said.
In addition to housing, the proposed detention center would include booking and intake rooms, program and support space and office space for jail administration, as well as special needs and medical day rooms.
“What we’re trying to do is give the sheriffs a little bit of capacity for mental health issues that are plaguing our correctional facilities,” Goldberg said.
A specific site for the detention center was not identified or discussed during the meeting, though officials have previously said a location close to U.S. Interstate 35 and situated near the county line would be most convenient for both jurisdictions.
“You can see if you look at the elevations and the renderings, there’s no guard towers, there’s no barbed wire. The idea is it looks more like an office building than somebody’s idea of an old jail. It’s a good neighbor,” Goldberg said.
The estimated cost for the sample facility Goldberg presented to commissioners was just over $35 million, which would likely be financed through the issuance of revenue bonds.
“One of the things we were directed to do was to come to the table with an approach that might utilize your existing appropriations or what have you, but would not require either county to necessarily increase sales tax or any other tax by doing this project,” Goldberg said.
He presented sample numbers, based on the feasibility study he’d already worked on for Garvin County, that indicated the existing allocation or operating budget for each county’s jail, when combined, could potentially cover annual debt service for the new facility.
According to Goldberg’s estimates, additional revenue generated from housing detainees for other agencies in the counties, Chickasaw Nation Lighthorse and the U.S. Marshals Service, along with things like commissary service could potentially help cover the detention center’s operating budget.
Once the revenue bonds are paid off, Goldberg said, “Revenues derived from this project could be a great economic engine for both of these jurisdictions for a long time.”
Commissioners also heard from public finance banker Gregory Vahrenberg, with Raymond James Public Finance, and bond attorney Jacob Bachelor of Centennial Law Group regarding the financing and bonding process that would be necessary for building a joint detention center.
Bachelor said he thought the project as proposed was very viable.
“You may not need a lot of extra money to fund this project. You may not have to ask voters for a lot of new sales tax money. I’m not promising that, but that’s kind of what it sounds like preliminarily,” Bachelor said.
Unlike school bond projects in Oklahoma, which are usually issued as general obligation bonds repaid with ad valorem or property taxes, Bachelor said, municipal or county projects like the proposed detention center are generally funded with revenue bonds repaid with sales tax money or other municipal or county revenues.
A public trust would need to be set up to issue revenue bonds for the project, Bachelor said, adding that the trust could represent both counties or could be designed another way, depending on how the counties wanted to structure it.
“There’s a lot of flexibility on how the two counties want this to go. We can pretty much engineer and create whatever model you all want to do,” Bachelor said.
Two options presented were to create a trust set up under one county with the other county leasing bed space, or a trust set up under both counties with representation from each county on the trust board.
McClain County Commissioner Wilson Lyles asked if additional sales tax is needed, how can commissioners reassure voters each county will be contributing an equitable amount to a joint facility.
“It needs to be fair on day one, but you also need to have a mechanism where it’s fair in year 10 and fair in year 20,” Vahrenberg said. “Counties can grow at different paces and usage can change. Some of the operating agreements that we’ve had on joint projects have what we call a true-up mechanism at the end of each year, so that you look in year two and year three or year five and say, ‘Okay one county is using slightly more than they thought, the other one not quite as much,’ and then you have this annual rebalancing of that allocation of lease payments or debt service based on usage.
“Fifty-fifty may be fair on day one, but it may change in year 10, so you want to have that mechanism in place where it moves as the usage moves.”
Assistant District Attorney Kristina Bell, who represents the board of county commissioners in both Garvin and McClain Counties, expressed concerns about structuring agreements to protect the interests of both counties.
She asked if anyone was aware of other multijurisdictional regional jail partnerships the group could look to for reference.
Goldberg said he is aware of very few. His firm has done about 13 different feasibility studies over the years for multijurisdictional projects, but almost none of them have come to fruition.
“Right now, we’re really very blessed with wonderful officials in both counties that work very well together. But I worry about political or policy changes that might happen down the road with one or the other,” Bell said. “I just want to have things in place, so we think of as many contingencies as we can, so everyone is protected.”
Bachelor said one way to do that is with a joint operations contract, much like a traditional partnership agreement, that hashes out details and proper procedures from day one, but also looks to the future.
Vahrenberg said, while not an example of a justice center project, he has worked on revenue bond issues where two municipalities have come together to create a joint utility authority.
“The water treatment plant may be built in one city, the wastewater treatment plant in the other, and we’ve got some really good examples of those operating agreements that contemplate that true-up mechanism and how are we going to split the operation and maintenance, and what happens if something unforeseen happens?” Vahrenberg said. “In those situations, you build in a provision where the board of that authority can go in and amend the documents so long as it’s not detrimental to bondholder’s interests.
“So even those things that we don’t know what they might be five or 10 years down the road, we built up a mechanism where we can address that.
“And as long as it’s not hurting the credit quality of the bond issue then you can have that flexibility to make those adjustments.”
Commissioners took no action on the regional detention center during the August 14 meeting but agreed to continue discussions with their own boards and each county’s sheriff.
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