Officials Break Ground On Smith County Jail Expansion
By ADAM RUSSELL
Mid-morning sunshine beamed on and from the faces of county commissioners, sheriff's office officials and other community leaders who faced darker days during years of failed attempts to improve the Smith County Jail.
On Tuesday, officials, past and present, and community leaders, many who served on committees to develop four failed jail bond proposals, gathered to celebrate breaking ground on the $33 million downtown jail expansion project approved by voters in May.
In the culmination of "much planning and patience," as County Judge Joel Baker put it, Sheriff J.B. Smith, his chief deputies, and members of the county commissioners cast ceremonial shovels of dirt in the parking lot north of the existing jail that will soon be turned into a "state-of-the-art," six-story brick and glass building.
When completed, the expansion will end the county's seven-year remedial order requiring shipment of inmates to other counties. Officials said it also will address jailer security and safety problems posed by the existing jail.
"It's been a long time coming," Smith said. "It's been 15 years since I first asked for an addition. I won't be sheriff when it opens, but I am happy for the next person that takes it over."
In 2006, 2007 and 2008, four different jail plans with costs ranging from $59.6 million to $125 million were soundly defeated by voters. Smith worked alongside members of committees who tried to address jail overcrowding and logistical problems within the central jail, constructed in 1985.
Smith said convincing voters to build a jail, which is historically unpopular, is like "asking someone to bet on a dead horse."
On Tuesday, he thanked voters for investing in the jail project, which will hold offenders and be a safer work environment for jailers, he said.
Commissioner Jeff Warr, who took office in 2009, spearheaded the plan that eventually emerged as an acceptable alternative to past bonds. In a past interview, Warr said he "learned more about jails than any person should ever know" during his first two years in office.
"When I walked into Judge Baker's office to say, 'I'll work on that (alluding to another jail bond proposal),' little did I know what it would entail," he said.
After more than 30 community meetings, thousands of emails, hundreds of phone calls and countless hours of discussions with architects, engineers, the sheriff's office, the state jail commission and taxpayers, Warr called the ceremony an "honor."
Warr said the county worked diligently to build an "attractive building on the exterior (to fit in with downtown) and a functional jail on the interior." He said county officials also will continue to work diligently to reduce inmate numbers and maximize space for inmates held by other jurisdictions, which would create revenue and pay the jail off sooner than expected.
The court approved a resolution to put additional revenue generated toward debt.
State Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, who was mayor when discussions about jail projects began in the early 2000s, thanked Warr and said it is never easy to lead a bond proposal. He said it took political courage to ask voters to consider a tax increase to fund a controversial and unpopular project.
"At the end of the day the voters got it right," he said. "They waited until the right project came along and they delivered and we need to deliver on the promises that we've made."
Baker called the day a "relief." He reflected on the previous failed bonds, the work involved in preparing and presenting plans, the political and personal fallout associated with the different proposals and how the county will work to make the addition effective and efficient for decades. He said the past failures necessitated discussions to make the jail run more efficiently. Those successes will be applied to the new jail, he said.
"We don't want to fill this jail on day one like it was (in 1985) when it opened," he said. "We want this to handle our needs for decades."
When completed, the project will add 384 jail beds,
increasing its inmate capacity to 1,139.
The county began work in January on the first leg of the project, which includes moving the central downtown jail's kitchen, laundry and video visitation to the Low Risk Facility north of Loop 323 and U.S. Highway 69.
The ceremony kicked off the second phase, which includes adding the additional high/medium risk beds, an infirmary, a new book-in area and more holding tanks. Baker said contractors expect the completed project to take 24 months.
Smith thanked county residents for improving the facility and creating a safer, more secure environment for the people working in the "most dangerous place in Tyler."
"It's going to be a better all around place for them to run this world inside your world," he said.