Though things appeared to be on the right track Thursday, the tiff between Gainesville and Hall County officials over the facility that holds the key to their collective future is far from over.
To Hall County, the old jail on Main Street means 160 new jobs and a $2 million a year lease to Corrections Corp. of America, money that is greatly needed in such hard economic times.
But to Gainesville, the industrial brown building surrounded by razor wire is a thorn in its big plans to redevelop and beautify the Midtown area.
Any conversations among city council members and county commissioners on the issue have been informal and, in some cases, hostile, making litigation seem, at times, like an inevitable solution.
Although the city made some concessions this week by allowing CCA to move forward with renovations of the future immigration detention center, the two parties have yet to come to an agreement over the future of the Main Street site.
It is still unclear if and when the city will gain control of the property, and how the discord between the two governments will affect the opening of CCA’s North Georgia Detention Center.
Disagreement boils over
The tension between the city and the county came to a head during an April 9 Hall County Board of Commissioners meeting in which Gainesville City Council members, City Attorney James E. "Bubba" Palmour and City Manager Kip Padgett were present.
Councilman Danny Dunagan asked the county to honor an offer between certain city and county officials regarding Gainesville’s purchase of the detention center in Midtown.
In late 2007, the city announced plans to purchase the old jail for $4 million. The original agreement called for the city to pay for the jail over two fiscal years and allow the county to lease the jail to a private jail management firm like CCA for seven years. The deal would have generated approximately $18 million for the county and guaranteed Gainesville officials eventual control of the property.
But the contract that would have secured that purchase was never signed, and city and county officials can’t agree on why.
The county said the contract was hand delivered to the city with an expiration date and that the Council never responded.
The city says its former city manager, Bryan Shuler, was instructed to wait on the deal and never heard back from the county. Shuler did not return a message seeking comment, and the county refutes the statement.
The city later spent the money intended for the jail on property acquisition for its future Public Safety Facility and Fire Station No. 1. When the county announced a 20-year lease agreement with CCA, city officials balked.
But Dunagan was under the impression that he and Commission Chairman Tom Oliver had a new deal.At the April 9 meeting, Dunagan asked Oliver what happened to a promise Oliver had made to honor the original purchase agreement beginning in fiscal year 2010. Oliver told Dunagan that he would take the matter before the other commissioners this summer. That answer did not satisfy Dunagan.
"In other words, we don’t have an agreement," Dunagan said.
At what seemed to be a compromise between the city and the county, the commissioners then discussed having the matter placed on the agenda at their April 20 work session.
But no such item is listed on Monday’s agenda. When asked when the commission would discuss the matter, Oliver responded, "This summer."
"I think we should slow down a little and see where we are," Oliver said. "I’m not sure what the details should be."
The statement did not surprise Dunagan.
"They never do what they say they’re going to do," he said.
Commissioner Ashley Bell, whose district encompasses Gainesville, said he plans to bring up the subject during his allotted time. He thinks the best solution is to bring city and county officials together to discuss a compromise.
Commissioner Bobby Banks said though it is not an agenda item, he expects to discuss it Monday.
"Probably someone will bring it up in their commission time," Banks said. "We really need to come to a conclusion on what we’re going to do there and get it over with and move forward."
The city echoed the same sentiment Thursday when the council reneged on a previous decision to halt inspections and permitting for renovations on the jail.
In late March, Palmour told city Planning Director Rusty Ligon and Padgett that Gainesville should not inspect any of the renovations CCA had completed on the Main Street facility or issue any permits for more work until the city could work out the zoning issues.
The decision halted future renovations on the North Georgia Detention Center and indefinitely delayed the center’s opening and the 160 jobs it is expected to provide.
The city said its zoning code did not allow for a privately-run jail in the redevelopment district.
"Our position is that CCA is a proprietary function, not serving a necessary public function," Padgett said. "We needed to stop everything just so we can work through all the issues comprehensively with CCA."
But at the April 9 meeting, the county commission fought back against the city’s move and voted to take over permitting and inspection of the facility for the remainder of its renovation.
County Attorney Bill Blalock said the building technically is county property and not subject to city zoning ordinances. The city takes a different position.
"They can’t do that," Padgett said. "While the zoning may be up for discussion by a higher authority, the county cannot usurp the city’s ability to issue permits or perform inspections."
Padgett said the same thing in a memo to County Administrator Charley Nix on Wednesday.
"It is the city’s position that Hall County has no jurisdiction to exercise any inspection powers within the Main Street Jail property or to issue a Certificate of Occupancy leading to CCA’s operation of this facility," he wrote.
But Assistant Hall County Administrator Phil Sutton said it was the city whose actions were not legal.
"CCA was waiting for what they call a Certificate of Occupancy," Sutton said of one of the final requirements. "(Gainesville) accepted the plans, they did the plan review, they began the permitting process and then stopped it based on zoning. You cannot do that. We are not bound by city zoning on a county building, and it’s clear in the law."
On Thursday, the city changed its tune. After a 20-minute, closed-door meeting with CCA officials, Padgett and Mayor Myrtle Figueras said the city would resume permitting and inspections on the building.
"All of the distaste or disharmony and whatever actions isn’t really kind of doing us any good,"
Dunagan, however, said the change of heart came after the city determined that its actions were not legal.
"The reason that we really gave in to going ahead with the permitting was because our office had already issued the permits," Dunagan said. "We didn’t really have a legal reason to really stop that permit."
"Had the city had a strong enough case to stop the opening of CCA they would have done so until the county honored their agreement (to sell the jail to the city). We did not back down just to be nice."
No matter the reason, the move was applauded by both CCA and county officials.
"I think that’s an important thing for the community right now," Nix said. "I applaud Gainesville for coming around and thinking about it in that way as well."
"That’s all we’ve ever asked them to do is follow the law," Sutton said.
City officials said they hoped that in turn, the county would honor its agreement to sell the site to the city and the two governments could move forward with other business.
"We’ve got a lot of other things that we need to be doing other than arguing about something that we had an agreement on," Dunagan said.
Whether or not that happens is still an uncertainty.
"The ball’s in (Oliver’s) court," Dunagan said.