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Habersham looks to fix its leaky jail
Rust is just one of many problems at the 12-year-old lockup
Habersham County Sheriff Joey Terrell looks over an outdated control panel in the county’s detention center. - photo by Tom Reed

CLARKESVILLE — The Habersham County Detention Center isn’t 30 years old — it just looks it.

Built in 1997 at a cost of about $5 million, portions of the 130-bed jail have been continually plagued with problems of drainage, condensation, plumbing and roof leaks. Some cellblocks are overrun with rust. Standing water is common after hard rains and mold has surfaced in places.

First-term Sheriff Joey Terrell, who inherited the jail when he took office in January, knew the building had issues. But the scope of the problem has him worried about lawsuits.

“If we can’t get a handle on it, it’s a distinct possibility,” Terrell said.

Habersham County commissioners say they will address the biggest culprit — a porous roof — as soon as possible. A consultant inspected the building last week and work could start before year’s end at an estimated cost of $500,000. It would be fixing $80,000 worth of roofing done just three years ago.

Officials say the jail was snakebit from the beginning, when the contractor that built it went bankrupt and construction had to be finished on a performance bond.

“We’ve had issues ever since,” said Habersham County Commissioner Doug Vermilya, who was elected to the board two years after the jail was finished.

With the builder out of business, there was no one to sue when problems surfaced.

“It’s just like when you go to a car lot and buy a lemon,” Vermilya said. “There’s nothing you can do until you get rid of it. But we can’t get rid of this jail; we’ve got to make it last.”

The jail’s problems largely stem from a heating ventilation and air conditioning system that was retrofitted onto a building that wasn’t initially designed for it.

Vermilya said only about 25 percent of the jail has chronic leak problems.

The sheriff said there is an urgency to get plans started for a new jail, with hopes of getting one built with a local option sales tax. Though when that might be hasn’t been determined; the current SPLOST just started this year and runs for six years.

“We need to have plans for a long-range facility on the radar, one designed to last us 30 to 40 years,” Terrell said. “This is a 1970s-model jail built in the 1990s.”

Habersham County Commission Chairman Gerald Dunham said the jail’s condition “is certainly a matter of concern. The issues raised are serious.”

Dunham, like Vermilya, hopes to get another 10 or 12 years of useful life out of the building, adding that three-quarters of the jail “is a nice facility.”

It is the cells where rust has eaten holes in the metal walls that have created concern.

“We’ve got a problem, yes,” Vermilya said. “But we can fix it and we will fix it.”

Dunham, who was not on the county commission when the jail was designed and built, said the building has posed myriad problems.

“It’s been a disappointment since the day it opened,” Dunham said.