TUPELO • County leaders are once again exploring options to overhaul the Lee County Jail after attempts to renovate the facility in recent years failed to gain any traction.
Tommie Lee Ivy, president of the Lee County Board of Supervisors, told the Daily Journal on Tuesday that he toured the jail last week to learn the facility’s needs.
“I saw some needs. I’m not going to be specific, but I saw needs there,” Ivy said of the jail. “But I’m not an architect.”
Before taking any further action on the issue, Ivy believes the board should hire an independent consultant who is familiar with architecture to advise county politicians about the jail.
“We only want (a consultant) to tell us what we need. It’s not what we want, but what it is we need,” Ivy said.
To remove any concerns about conflicts of interest, Ivy said he would prefer a consultant who isn’t from the area.
One of the main concerns with the renovation efforts is the cost of the potential project. County politicians would more than likely have to fund any renovation effort by using a bond issue, which means taxes would likely increase.
“The dollar tag figure is what bothers me because we’re laying it on the taxpayers,” Ivy said.
Coupled with the funding concerns is the debate among county leaders about whether to simply renovate the facility, which would be cheaper, or build a new jail, which would be more expensive.
Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson declined to take questions from the Daily Journal about his thoughts on the jail but said in a statement that he has made his “position on the need for a new facility in the past and that has not changed.”
Johnson told the television station WCBI last week that he thought it was a slap in his face and to county residents for a supervisor to come and tour the prison after having many discussions about the jail in the past.
“We’ve been looking at this for five years, you’ve paid a consultant at least $20,000, toured other jails, drew up plans of what we need and now you think it’s time to come down here and look at the jail is exactly why we’re in the shape that we’re in,” Johnson said in the interview.
Ivy said it is premature to discuss what type of repair is needed to the jail before a consultant is hired, but did say he wants to be fair to the county’s taxpayers by only adopting an option that’s affordable.
“I’ve been very conservative with raising taxes,” Ivy said. “And a lot of people still can’t pay their taxes. That’s why I want us to go with just what we need and not what we want.”
Ivy’s tour of the prison comes during a time when the jail has historically faced overcrowding, though Johnson took some successful steps to reduce the head count after 2017 talks about the jail broke down.
According to jail records, the total number of prisoners has been creeping back up in recent months.
Bill Benson, the county administrator, told the Daily Journal that the board previously gave him authority to advertise for a consultant to work with the board regarding the jail. He plans to advertise for the job within the next few weeks.