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Back-door talks continue over old Hall County jail
Hall, Gainesville, CCA saying little about negotiations
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Elected officials are spending nearly as much time in back-door discussion as they are in front of the public lately at meetings of Hall County Board of Commissioners and the Gainesville City Council.

Executive sessions, which legally allow the officials to hold private meetings to discuss some items (such as real estate sales and purchases), are being held fairly frequently as Hall County government attempts to negotiate the sale of the old county jail to the city of Gainesville.

So far, stakeholders in the sale of the old county jail — Hall County, the city of Gainesville and the building's current lessee Corrections Corp. of America — are saying little about the progress of the behind-the-scenes negotiations taking place this week.

The Hall County Commission met in its second executive session this week to discuss real estate issues before its regularly scheduled meeting Thursday.

However, commissioners did not discuss or vote on matters involving the jail at the meeting.

Commissioner Ashley Bell said negotiations involving the sale of the jail are still under way with an effort to involve all of the stakeholders.

CCA has leased the midtown Gainesville building since 2008 to house detainees of the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. CCA operates at the detention center under a contract Hall County has with ICE.

Before these recent negotiations between the city and county, it was CCA that was close to a deal to buy the jail, now called the North Georgia Detention Center.

A lease-for-purchase agreement approved by the commission last month would have given CCA full ownership after seven years for $7.2 million.

But Gainesville officials, who have said they would like to get rid of the old jail to make way for their midtown redevelopment plans, pushed to purchase the facility instead.

Last week, CCA's deal with Hall County was put on hold by the Gainesville-Hall Development Authority to give the city enough time to make its own written offer. On Tuesday, the city matched CCA's $7.2 million offer, according to a Hall County government source.

But hang-ups do remain.

For now, Bell and Commissioner Billy Powell have been designated to help foster a deal between the three parties: Hall County, the city of Gainesville and CCA.

"We'll move along to pull together a deal," Bell said. "We've got to put all the options on the table and see what we can get resolved."

One stumbling block in a deal between the city and county is the question of liability if CCA chooses to sue. The county is seeking to avoid liability if it cancels the previous deal with CCA.

If the county sells the jail, it would have to transfer the current agreement with ICE.

"If the ownership of the facility housing the North Georgia Detention Center changes, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the new owners would have to renegotiate the Intergovernmental Service Agreement that forms the basis of the current contract," wrote ICE spokesman Vincent Picard in a statement.

That means if Gainesville purchased the facility and decided to allow CCA to remain in the facility, city officials would have to come to an agreement with federal immigration officials.

CCA senior director Tommy Alsup said last week the change could mean that ICE would suspend its operations at the detention center until the new agreement is reached, meaning the company could lose at least two months of revenue and about 145 jobs would be in jeopardy.

ICE officials would not speculate on what conditions could cause the detention center to temporarily suspend operations.

But if that occurred, Commissioner Scott Gibbs said CCA could sue the county for lost income. As a precaution, the county wants the city to assume liability if the county breaks its existing agreement with CCA.

This week, as city and county officials have negotiated a possible deal, CCA has been publicly silent.

A CCA representative said on Thursday the corporation has not been in contact with Gainesville city officials and said it was "premature to comment to the media."

However, county officials said CCA has made its position clear to them.

"CCA has been very adamant about what they want and this (sale to Gainesville) is not what they want, so we assume there would be repercussions ..." Bell said earlier this week.

CCA sought to buy the jail this year after the number of detainees housed there declined last year.

The agreement CCA and the county signed in 2008 was supposed to net the county $2 million a year for 20 years, but allowed CCA to break the lease if its economic conditions changed. The county had been working with CCA on a new agreement since fall.

 

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