Originally created 11/28/02

Officials argue over new prison

LEXINGTON, Ga. - Oglethorpe County commissioners won a minor victory in the feud with Sheriff Jason Lowe over construction of a new county jail, but hard feelings persist.

Sheriff Lowe sued the county commissioners in May, saying it was their duty to build a new jail and to fund more positions in the sheriff's office. Last month Sheriff Lowe dismissed the jail portion of the suit after it was determined the claim had no legal standing.

"We voluntarily dismissed it because we couldn't proceed with it," said Sheriff Lowe's attorney, Alan Alexander. "Georgia courts have held that's a discretionary issue - they can do what they want to do."

The sheriff and county commissioners are still going to court in January to argue overall staffing and budget issues before Senior Judge Bernard J. Mulherin.

As for the jail, Commission Chairman Charles Mathews says it will be built. Mr. Mathews attributes the delays to problems locating a suitable site. Three sites were considered and rejected because they either weren't feasible for infrastructure purposes or were near constituents who didn't want a jail in their back yards. The county has since bought a 7.49-acre tract in Crawford. Grading work could start late this year, and a concrete pad should be in place by the spring, Mr. Mathews said.

"We have a few people who are not content with this operation, and they seem to think we're trying to get by without building a jail," he said. "We are definitely going to see a jail built, not from pressure from the sheriff; we're just going to do what's best for the county."

"I'll believe it when I see it," Mr. Alexander said.

Sheriff Lowe grudgingly admits that "We can't force them to build a jail."

"But we really need to heighten awareness and let people know the cost to the county of going without one," Sheriff Lowe said.

Sheriff Lowe says the county will pay more than half a million dollars this year to house inmates in other counties, not counting the extra costs and manpower of hauling inmates to and from court.

"I hope we're making progress on a new jail facility, but it's up to the commissioners and when they want to cut loose the money," Sheriff Lowe said.

More than $2 million is earmarked from a special sales tax referendum Oglethorpe County voters approved for a new jail.

"The money is there," Sheriff Lowe said.

Mr. Mathews said commissioners are still considering how many beds the jail will have. Estimates range from 50 to 75 beds at a cost of about $2 million.

"We're not going to build them a Hyatt-Regency," Mr. Mathews said. "We're going to build them a jail that hopefully they won't want to come back to."


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