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Juvenile detention dilemma in numbers

By ZOË WATKINS - zwatkins@t-g.com
Posted 5/13/23

How to fund the building of a new juvenile center was the center of discussion at a Tuesday study session for the Courthouse and Property Committee.  

According to Jeff Sweeney, past county …

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Juvenile detention dilemma in numbers


How to fund the building of a new juvenile center was the center of discussion at a Tuesday study session for the Courthouse and Property Committee.  

According to Jeff Sweeney, past county commissioner and county construction advisor, the cost to build a new facility — but with no kitchen and laundry room — could cost close to $4 million for 7,000 square feet.

“That puts us in a very good position for multiple bids. We’re not seeing material prices go down but we’re starting to get calls for bidding wanting to bid on more work. So, labor costs might come down soon, but not by much,” said Sweeney.

In the next year, Tennessee will also be changing many of its building and code requirements, which could add another $2 million. For example, they will be requiring a “safe room” to be built in schools and education facilities. Building now would essentially grandfather in their design for another budget year.

“If it’s a 2024 structure, you’re looking at 4.8 [million],” said Sweeney.

“And we’re talking about the bare minimum. You’re not building for the future. You’re not even putting a kitchen in. You realize what you’re saying…I don’t even know how you can make this make sense,” said Bedford County Mayor Chad Graham.

Cartwright Elementary had a guaranteed maximum price of $32 million four years ago, according to Graham. But the price per square foot went up $100 in 18 months.

Renovating the current building — which has been ruled out by the committee — for $2 million would essentially be putting a band-aid on the problem. Plus, any renovations done to the 40-year-old building wouldn’t last 20 years, according to Sweeney.

The county has been studying this problem for close to four years. Committee chair and county commissioner Julie Sanders talked about how she thought she was originally for sending them out, but after analyzing the cost, said,  “I wasn’t sure where I stood when we started this. I didn’t want to be swayed either way. I wanted to hear the facts. And really the bottom line is it’s going to cost more to send them." 

Send them out

Another option is to send the juvenile out of the county to other facilities. But, according to Sanders, this would require the same amount of personnel, the building of a holding facility, and constant expense for gas and cars.

“If we ship these kids out, it’s going to be a mess,” said Commissioner Greg Vick.

County finance director Robert Daniel broke the numbers down.

Williamson County has one of the cheapest — so to speak — rates for the cost per day to house an out-of-county juvenile at $125 per day. Shelby County has the most expensive at $150 per day. (This is excluding Rutherford County whose rate is $175 per day. Daniel said Rutherford isn’t taking in any juveniles currently). These rates, too, could go up and down. 

The total minimum cost for transporting the juveniles would be $366,455.91 and the total maximum would be $476,482.58. These numbers are based on the county’s current numbers of 200 juveniles and 1600 nights. This includes vehicle costs and transport officers. Specifically, the county would also need two transport officers (one for males and one for females), which would cost $129,853, including salary and insurance.

Not to mention, Sweeney suggested that sending juveniles out to locations with more crime per capita (like Shelby County) could negatively influence Bedford’s delinquents. The top reasons for juveniles going to detention are for assault, runaway/unruly behavior, violations of probation, vandalism, drugs, and — increasingly — threats made at school/carrying a handgun, according to juvenile center director Kelle Smith.


“Right now, all we really need to be deciding is: are we keeping juvenile services in this county or are we going to send them out? That’s what we’ve got to decide first,” said Sanders.

But Commissioner Drew Hooker had an issue with making such a decision until there were more details on how to fund the project.  “I don’t think we can make that decision…

“We can talk about needing it, about wanting it all we want. But we’ve got to figure out how to put some money into it,” he said. “I cannot with good conscious say that we can pay for this with a tax increase.”

Daniel said that will be part of the budget process and rely on a revenue stream. “Currently, we’re paying more in debt payments than we’re taking in revenue. So, we’re balancing that with the fund balance. So, we’re underwater in the debt payments,” he said. “We’ve got to find a revenue stream somewhere. If not, it will be like maxing out on a credit card.”

Graham said that revenue stream could come from four cents from the tax or $10 of a wheel tax. That four cents is based on $500,000 a year that is generally needed to pay the debt up to $5 million.

“Now how much of the four cents can be absorbed in the current, without new money, we don’t know. But that’s what we’re working on.

“You’ve got to keep in mind the county is not going out of business,” said Graham. “The job of the commission and mayor’s office is to run the county system, not thump your chest saying you never voted for anything. It’s unfortunate, people like to call me a RINO because I’m not afraid to say we’re supposed to fix this.”

The next Courthouse and Property Committee meeting is May 16, consecutively after the Rules and Legislative Committee and the Law Enforcement Committee which begin at 5 p.m. at the Bedford Courthouse Community Room.