While many county departments have been cut over the last four years, the Guilford County Sheriff's Department continues to grow – and Sheriff BJ Barnes' empire may expand even further if the Board of Commissioners approves a proposed purchase of two buildings for that department.
Guilford County is considering buying and renovating two buildings from Koury Corporation in a corporate park in south Greensboro to house special operations for the Sheriff's Department. The move was discussed in a closed session of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners on Thursday, Oct. 4, and, though there are no firm numbers on the table yet, one source at the meeting estimated the purchase of the two buildings, together with the proposed renovations, could – based on tax values and rough construction estimates –come to between $6 million and $8 million.
If the commissioners decide to move forward with the plan, the money would come from the roughly $15 million left over from the $115 million jail bond referendum approved by voters in May 2008. on the weekends. Despite what some commissioners seem to think, all of that money doesn't have to be spent.
In the Oct. 4 closed session – held to discuss the "possible acquisition of real estate" – the commissioners heard a proposal to buy the building that the Sheriff's Department Special Operations Center currently rents from Koury at 2814 Firestone Dr. That building is in Interstate Industrial Park, just south of I-40 near the South Elm-Eugene Street interchange.
The second building the board discussed buying is right next to the Special Operations Center and is currently unoccupied.
The building at 2814 Firestone houses 52 law enforcement officers including many of the county's detectives. It also serves as a major storage site for evidence.
Guilford County has been renting the building on Firestone Drive since 2000, and that lease came up for renewal at the end of 2009. In November 2009, the Board of Commissioners voted to enter into a three-year agreement with Koury, with the county paying $135,000 a year in the first two years and $142,500 in the third year. That contract expires on Dec. 31, and Fox told the commissioners in the closed session that, in the long run, it would likely cost less to buy the Firestone building than to continue renting it.
The two pieces of property are listed on the same deed and Koury apparently has a strong desire to sell both buildings as a package deal.
Barnes said that, in recent years, the only staff additions to the Sheriff's Department, other then detention personnel, are five officers who run a Driving While Impaired (DWI) Task Force. Barnes added, however, that the Firestone building is currently overcrowded and has been for a while.
One commissioner, who asked not to be identified, said it's ironic that, last year, Fox – apparently without telling the sheriff or the commissioners or any other county official – simply stopped paying the rent on the Sheriff's Department's district office in Summerfield, but Fox is now advocating that the county buy the two buildings for the department.
In that widely reported incident in the summer of 2011, the sheriff received notice from the property owner that his rent was past due. When that fact came to light, Fox claimed the reason she stopped the rent payments was because the owner of that building owed back taxes. However, many believe there were other motives at work.
Despite the fact that Fox didn't even want to pay the rent for the sheriff last year, now she's pushing to buy the department two new buildings.
Barnes wrote in an email, "This conversation about space came up when I was discussing with the manager that we have the lease on our Firestone location coming up in Dec. (you remember the debacles I have had over leases with her in the past)."
He said the Special Operations Center now holds 52 people, but the space is only meant to hold 39.
"This increase is because of consolidation of sections and an increase in evidence area because of increased case evidence," Barnes stated. "The location now is overcrowded with people and evidence and cannot be expanded without a major increase in rent and commitment from us to stay longer," Barnes wrote. "I suggested at that time we could probably check on leasing the building next door which is bigger but needs upfitting, or better yet buying it and moving the evidence only once."
The upfitting of the building not currently in use would be expensive since it would require turning a one-floor flex space building into a two-story building, as well as installing an elevator and making many other large-scale structural changes.
One source said county staff was authorized by the board in the closed session to contact Koury for the asking price for the two buildings. The source said it was his understanding that "Koury would sell, but they had to sell both buildings at the same time."
Barnes said he has told both the manager and the commissioners that his special operations division could make do in the current situation for the next five years despite the overcrowding.
Barnes said Fox wants the county to buy the buildings. He said Fox says this is the right time to buy, and Barnes said he told the manager, "If the price is right, we could use the savings from the bond from the jail."
Barnes also said he had spoken with some of the commissioners on the matter and that many of them have concerns about making a large purchase while the economy is still depressed. He said he shares that concern but added this might be a chance to save money.
Advocates of the move argue that the depressed economy is the reason the county is likely to get a good price on the buildings.
"The final answer," Barnes wrote, "is going to be one of the following: We renew the lease at a new price for up to five years (our rent is now $142,500.00 per year plus utilities), we move and who knows what the rent will be or where it will be, or we purchase a place which we can call home for the foreseeable future."
Barnes said it's unwise to keep moving evidence around from place to place. He said criminal cases could be lost over questions of "whether the evidence was kept uncontaminated."
That jail bond referendum in 2008 was presented to county voters as a way to raise money to build a new jail, but the money can be used for any county law enforcement capital project. Over the last year and a half, the commissioners have discussed using some of that "leftover" money to build a parking deck for the new jail.
If the county does buy and renovate the two buildings, it would likely leave enough money for a parking deck of the size Barnes has requested. He has said he needs at least 225 parking spaces near the new jail.
Commissioner Kirk Perkins said he's not quite sure why Barnes usually gets everything he wants, when other departments see one cut after another.
"It seems like we've been doing a lot for the sheriff lately, doesn't it?" Perkins said.
Perkins also said he's unclear why the sheriff needs more space.
"That's a good question," he said.
But Barnes, who prides himself on doing everything he can to save taxpayer dollars, said it really comes down to a matter of what makes financial sense for the county.
In addition to the main office in downtown Greensboro, the Sheriff's Department has three district offices in Guilford County. He has moved from renting those office to owning them.
"My stance on this is I don't like paying rent," Barnes wrote. "That's why I have used federal forfeiture [funds] to purchase a substation in District one and District three. I've resigned myself to the fact that I will need to do the same in District two when I build up the money again. I can't count on the manager to pay the rent (remember district one [the Summerfield office]) that was negotiated in my budget and I can't afford to have my officers and the public in the street. I do agree with the manager that this is the perfect time to buy and what we pay in rent will cover the debt service and we will need the space."
Barnes added that, if the economy were better, buying the buildings would be a "no-brainer." However, he said, right now it comes down to whether or not the county will save money in the long run by making the purchase rather than moving or renewing the lease.