Brittney Burns – Staff Writer

Macon County Sheriff spent $163,156 in 2016 for out of county housing for Macon County inmates transported to other facilities in Western North Carolina because the county detention center can’t adequately house them.

In 2016, 1,015 males and 518 females were incarcerated in the Macon County facility.  As of Tuesday, the jail had 87 inmates in custody and 22 are female.  Of those 87 inmates, 41 of those inmates are on some sort of legally prescribed medication that must be provided, another cost for the detention center.

The female ward of the Macon County Detention Center is designed to hold 11 females. That ward has been at capacity, forcing officers to transport female inmates to Cherokee or Clay counties. While the inmates are being housed in other counties, they are still the financial responsibility of Macon County. In addition to the cost associated with housing an increased number of inmates out of county, the Macon County Sheriff’s Office also has to cover the expenses of transporting those inmates to and from neighboring facilities, something that is usually associated with overtime of officers.

These increased costs have lead to a strain on the sheriff’s office budget. Commissioner Ronnie Beale, who serves as the liaison to the sheriff’s department, informed the board of the issue during last Friday’s budget work session and said that it may be time for the county to evaluate the jail facility and see if an expansion might be warranted.

The county jail was just one property identified as in need of potential expansion. Commissioner Gary Shields and Beale agreed that schools in Macon County needed to be part of the conversation when looking at overall county needs. South Macon Elementary School was pointed out as a possible site for expansion earlier this year, when the district approved an additional kindergarten class to handle enrollment increases. To accommodate an additional kindergarten class, a smaller, 11-student exceptional children’s classroom was moved to an office space. With the amount of property in the South Macon school district, continued growth is expected to occur. Beale said the school’s current layout is conducive to an expansion, and how to address the increased enrollment needs to be something the board talks about in this budget cycle.

Shields asked commissioners to consider the needs of Franklin High School, which continues to age and is requiring more and more dollars for maintenance and upkeep each year. Over the past few years, county officials have toyed with the idea of building a new school, something Shields believes needs to be decided once and for all. Shields said that new property is hard to come by, especially the more than 40 acres it is estimated to be needed for a new high school campus. While plans for a new school may not be as immediate of a need, Shield said if a new school is decided on, plans to secure the land may need to be discussed sooner rather than later.

Beale noted that the Macon County Senior Services building is also in need of additional space. Parking has been an issue for some time, but now the actual facility is seeing an increase in demand and use. Ensuring that the county’s senior citizens have a facility for county provided services is essential and something that Beale would like to see explored more in the upcoming budget.

Commissioner Paul Higdon noted that one of his infrastructure concerns is with the Board of Elections, which is located in the bottom of the courthouse. The Board of Elections needs considerable room for storage and easy access to the public, but also requires safety. Higdon has repeatedly voiced concerns over the department being located in the basement of the courthouse, next to the county’s parole and probation department, with little security. Beale noted that if a solution could be decided on the senior service center, that existing building would be a great location to possibly relocate the board of elections.

Before looking at taking on new debt to build new facilities in the county, Commission Chair Jim Tate, would like to see the county do a full evaluation of the existing debt load. Macon County Finance Director Lori Hall presented the board with a debt chart that showed debt rolling off each year through 2020 if paid at current levels, but with the county’s fund balance more than double the recommended state amount, some commissioners would like to see those dollars spent to address the county’s debt.

“I personally would like to see us continue to pay off our current long term debts with any potential/available funds,” said Tate. “This should help place the county in excellent financial condition should any major infrastructure projects be needed in the future.”

Tate said one way the county has already done that, was last fall when the county elected to spend $1.5 million out of the county’s fund balance to pay off the loan taken out for the Parker Meadows Recreation Park. Paying off that debt, freed up more than $200,000 in county operational dollars that can now be better utilized elsewhere.

Looking at the county’s debt obligations and the possibility of paying them off sooner rather than later is something commissioners all agreed with be a great step forward.