Commissioners debate jail privatization

The Shelby County Criminal Justice Center at 201 Poplar.
The Shelby County Criminal Justice Center at 201 Poplar.

Supporters of a plan to privatize the downtown Shelby County Jail say it could save taxpayers more than $25 million. Opponents don't buy it. But at a Shelby County Commission committee meeting Monday, the biggest debate was over why the County Mayor and Sheriff shut down the issue before county leaders and the public could put their hands on it.

Shelby County Commissioner Deidre Malone is no fan of jail privatization, but even she says the public deserves a chance to hear the details before the door is closed.

"It does seem a little...I don't know what the appropriate word is, and let me be careful because I'm dealing with some lawyers," Malone said at Monday's meeting. "But it does seem shady. It seems a little shady."

Malone and others were upset about a mid-December press conference, at which Sheriff Mark Luttrell and County Mayor A.C. Wharton took privatization off the table, before commissioners and the public could debate the plans.

Commissioners drilled Luttrell at Monday's committee meeting, effectively resuscitating the controversial debate.

"With the procedure being short-circuited, we weren't even able to discuss the meat of the issue, which is how are we administering our criminal justice system," said Commissioner Julian Bolton.

Even without details, the issue was debated at the meeting. Union leader Dorothy Crook told commissioners it's a non-starter and that they should not hold a public hearing.

Jailers worry about their jobs and benefits if the downtown jail is privatized. Luttrell told reporters he disagreed with criticism that the item was hushed before it could be debated.

"The subject of privatization has been brought up frequently in county commission meetings over the last year," Luttrell said. "The proposals were confidential and certainly they're available now for review and certainly open for everybody to see."

County Mayor A.C. Wharton has promised a report on the various plans that have been presented, to be issued by the end of the week.