TUPELO – Lee County officials seem settled on a proposed location for a new jail and expanded law enforcement complex – right where the current jail sits.
That’s the formal recommendation of a site selection committee formed by county officials earlier this year to explore possible places for a new jail.
During a Monday meeting of the Lee County Board of Supervisors, Sheriff Jim Johnson said the current site has several benefits. These benefits include proximity to fire protection and medical care, as well as the county’s juvenile detention facility and court complex.
Johnson’s comments reflected a unanimous decision by the site selection committee. The committee did not propose any other alternative or secondary sites.
No supervisors objected to the recommendation, but the site committee’s decision is not binding.
Previous concerns that the current site might not prove workable were allayed by the city of Tupelo’s stated willingness to relocate a power line that runs behind the jail property.
With more details coming into view, supervisors also seem increasingly willing to bypass a voter referendum and directly authorize the tax increases needed to finance a new jail and law enforcement compound.
In a motion offered at Monday’s meeting, District 5 Supervisor Billy Joe Holland proposed to formally approve the current site as the new jail’s location and to authorize the construction of a new jail.
A bit of confusion followed. Board president District 1 Supervisor Phil Morgan criticized Holland’s motion and then called for a vote before a second was offered.
Only Holland and District 3 Supervisor Tony Roper voted in favor of authorizing the construction of a new jail.
Morgan said construction costs of a new facility need to be known before he can consider any action on the matter.
“I’m not voting to support a blank check,” Morgan said.
However, Morgan said he is open to bypassing a referendum.
Morgan has pushed the idea of a voter referendum since the beginning of the year. But he told the Daily Journal Monday that the tax increases needed to finance a bond issue for jail construction may be less than he initially thought.
Holland said supervisors should abandon a referendum because he believes that a new jail is inevitable.
“We’re going to build a jail sooner or later,” he said. “I’d rather be proactive than reactive.”
Holland warned that if voters reject a bond referendum but federal authorities later use judicial action to force the construction of a new jail, then supervisors will be a “laughingstock.”
The jail currently sits on approximately 14 acres of land. The Community Development Foundation owns approximately 30 acres of property adjacent to the jail site.
The CDF is willing to offer an arrangement to the county for the use or the purchase of that property or at least some of it, though the details remain unsettled.
A power line currently hampers the ability of Lee County to use the CDF property. If the city of Tupelo moves that line, the site selection committee recommends the construction of a new 500-bed detention facility near the back of the current jail property and on about 3 acres of the CDF property.
Moving the detention facility further back on the current property would free up more room to raze the present jail and rebuilt on or near its footprint administrative facilities for the sheriff’s office, a crime lab, a morgue and a new justice court building.