City jail is a budget-buster

Mayor wants to sell the costly city jail, but Council members want endless debate

Here's the bottom line: The Atlanta Detention Center – otherwise known as the city jail – located at the south end of Peachtree Street downtown costs taxpayers $30 million a year. That's net, after you've already factored in payments from MARTA, the U.S. Marshal's office, immigration authorities and the other agencies that lease inmate bed space from the city.

The city – or, more precisely, the mayor's office – wants to sell the jail to Fulton County. The lease-purchase deal would stem the flow of red ink and help close an anticipated $55 million gap in the upcoming 2011 budget. Fulton, still under a federal court mandate to ease overcrowding at its own jail, theoretically wants to buy the city's 1,150-bed facility.

As Councilman Howard Shook observes: "This deal is a no-brainer."

But you wouldn't know it from having attended recent Atlanta Council Finance Committee meetings, in which members have spent excruciating hours asking pointless questions, getting testy with administration officials and generally wallowing in irrelevant minutiae.

For instance, at a meeting about the jail two weeks ago, Councilman C.T. Martin insisted that the administration break down the resale value of every feature of the property, including the front steps, the elevators, the hallways, etc. – a request that would get him laughed out of any gathering of commercial real estate brokers.

At a second meeting on March 23, Martin claimed to be appalled that the city hadn't done a property appraisal on the facility. As Peter Aman, the city's chief operating officer, attempted to explain: It's not an office building; it's not loft apartments; it's a jail – and a somewhat outdated one at that. The only potential buyer for a jail is another governmental entity and the only meaningful price is one that comes out of negotiations. A third-party appraisal on such a single-function property would be meaningless.

But Martin wasn't the only time-waster. Councilwoman Felicia Moore has made a long career of asking whatever administration is in power – Campbell, Franklin and now Reed – for increasingly detailed information about every action the city is considering.

Moore sees herself as a watchdog looking out for the public good, but history suggests she enjoys gathering data for its own sake. She always has one more question, wants another chart, asks for a follow-up work session, finds new nits to pick. In short, if Moore were running City Hall, few decisions would ever get made.

Which is a shame, because there are legitimate questions to be asked about the jail deal. Councilman Michael Bond, who worked at the facility from 1989 to 1993 and has a brother who is still a jailer there, has emerged as the most fervent opponent to its proposed transfer to Fulton County.

"The plan on the table doesn't contemplate the delicate intricacies of the criminal justice system," Bond says. "My greatest fear is that we'll end up paying more on the back end because of unintended consequences of this deal."

He's got a point. Back in the early '90s, when the third Maynard Jackson administration needed to replace the city's cramped, semi-medieval jail on DeKalb Avenue, it conceived the ADC as an expansive, state-of-the-art facility that could generate revenue by leasing its extra bed space.

But it didn't work out quite as planned. Since opening in 1995, the jail has proven a major drag on the city budget, costing taxpayers $445 million over the past 15 years. Currently, it costs more to house inmates than the city can recover in payments for bed space. In essence, Atlanta is subsidizing the Fulton Sheriff's office and the other jurisdictions to provide a service that cities aren't required to provide. Under state code, pre-trial detention is a county function.

Atlanta has operated its own jail since the '50s and had a special exemption under state law to try some felony cases. This meant the city would keep those prisoners at the ADC – and keep the fines generated by those felony convictions. But Shirley Franklin, in one of her first initiatives as mayor, lobbied successfully to have the state law changed so Fulton would be required to house most of the city inmates at its jail on Rice Street – a move that contributed to the notorious overcrowding there.

"It was very undiplomatic to do it the way former Mayor Franklin did it," Shook says.

Bond would like the city to revisit those decisions – and potentially even ask the state to return to Atlanta the authority to try felony cases. And he's not the only Council member who wants to study such issues. Some, like Lamar Willis, have publicly said the city should reverse the consolidation of the municipal and traffic courts that took place under Franklin.

Bond is also concerned that many city jailers would opt for retirement rather than keep doing their current jobs for less pay under county employ – a possibility that could further impact the city's woeful pension situation.

But any such ambitious examinations of city policy would take months to complete. Reed, on the other hand, is pushing Council to make a decision on the jail in time for the 2011 budget, which must be approved by June 30.

"Some on Council may need reminding that this is, at the end of the day, a financial decision," Shook says. "It's fine to sit around debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but we've got a budget gap to close."

Bond couldn't disagree more.

"We can't afford to make short-sighted decisions that could end up costing us more in the long run," he says. "We have to be able to look past next year's budget."

The word among Council members, however, is that there may be enough votes at the March 31 Finance Committee meeting to put the proposal up for consideration by the full Council. And there's a possibility that Bond, who sits on the Finance Committee, may not even be able to vote on the matter.

Ginny Loony, the city's ethics officer, says the fact that Bond's vote could directly impact whether his brother keeps his job with the city may represent a conflict of interest. City code prohibits elected officials from partaking in decisions in which they have "a personal or financial interest," explains Loony, who expects to issue an opinion this week as to whether Bond can vote on – or even discuss – the sale of the jail.

Bond says he hasn't decided what he'd do if Loony advises him to recuse himself. "My position is that my brother's job has no bearing on my responsibility as a Council member to make these tough decisions."