$60M York Co. bond referendum could pay for new jail near Riverwalk

York County residents might be voting in November on a $60 million bond package that would pay for as-yet unspecified capital improvements, which could include a new jail near Rock Hill and expansion of existing law enforcement facilities.

The York County Council has given its initial approval to a referendum through which voters would decide whether to borrow up to $60 million.

No details were provided at Monday’s County Council meeting as to what those capital improvements might be, which is why Councilman Joe Cox said he cast the lone vote against it. Councilman Bruce Henderson did not attend the meeting.

“I don’t agree on voting on anything blind,” Cox said. “I don’t want to send anything to the voters that they don’t understand.”

Assistant county manager Anna Moore said the bond package would be no more than $60 million. The amount could be lower, she said, depending on which projects the council eventually attaches to the referendum in the upcoming months.

The County Council needed to vote this week on the ordinance establishing the referendum even without specific projects to meet legal deadlines for including the measure on November’s ballot. With only one meeting scheduled in July, the council will be pressed to take the necessary number of votes by a mid-August deadline.

“If we wanted to try and put a referendum before voters in November, we had to have a first reading (Monday) night,” Councilman Michael Johnson said.

Projects under consideration

The county has hired a company to study the county’s capital facilities, Moore said. It will present its findings to the council within the next month, she said, and county leaders will decide what projects to include on the referendum.

The list most likely will include “building projects that have been discussed over time,” Moore said.

Those projects, several council members said, could include improvements to Moss Justice Center in York and to court facilities across the county, and the construction of an “east booking facility” closer to Rock Hill and Fort Mill.

Cox and Councilman William “Bump” Roddey said the county was considering buying land along Cherry Road between the Rock Hill city limits and the Catawba River as a potential site for a new jail.

That would put the jail directly across Cherry Road from Riverwalk – nearly 1,000 acres of mixed-use development with an investment estimated at $600 million, including $50 million in city money. It is home to some of the city’s newest, high-profile recreational facilities, including the velodrome and a nearly completed BMX track that would host international competitions.

Despite that, city officials said this week they would not object if the county built a jail there.

“The city is completely supportive of the booking center being built in close proximity to the city limits,” the city said in a statement. “The exact location is at the full discretion of the county, since (it) will own the building.”

The county is studying that general area along Cherry Road as a possible site for a new jail, Moore said, but no specific location has been identified.

Public records show several properties between the river and the shopping center anchored by the Home Depot that fall under county jurisdiction. Several appear to be owned by the same company, and most are zoned for “urban development,” meaning the land can be used for many different purposes.

Need for additional space

Rapid growth in and around Rock Hill and Fort Mill has prompted the need for a law enforcement facility on the eastern end of York County, Sheriff Bruce Bryant said.

“It really presents a big problem for us,” he said.

When an officer makes an arrest in the Fort Mill area, Bryant said, he can lose up to three hours of patrol time by having to drive 15 to 20 miles to the Moss Justice Center in York, book a suspect in at the jail and drive back.

The Cherry Road location would be ideal, Bryant said, because of its access to Interstate 77 and other major roads in Fort Mill and Rock Hill.

An eastern York County booking site also would help reduce the large number of suspects going through the booking process at Moss Justice Center, he said. It would benefit not just sheriff’s deputies, he said, but all police departments on the eastern end of the county.

Such a jail would be a 48-hour booking location, Bryant said, meaning magistrates in Rock Hill and Fort Mill would set bond for suspects, who would remain at the eastern jail. If they couldn’t post bond within 48 hours, he said, they would be taken to Moss Justice, where they could be housed for longer periods of time.

In addition to a new jail, Bryant said, expansions are badly needed at Moss Justice Center, where there aren’t enough offices or courtrooms.

Currently, Moss Justice Center houses criminal courts, while the Heckle Complex in Rock Hill houses family court and civil court convenes in the Belk Building in York. Court documents, and court and sheriff’s employees are spread out at even more locations.

“As York County grows,” Bryant said, “the York County Sheriff’s Office has got to grow to meet the demand.”

Next steps

Before the County Council takes a second vote on whether to call a referendum for the bond sale, Councilman Michael Johnson said, the council and the public will receive more specific information about which projects would be included and their cost.

“Not only will we have a lot more information, there will be a public hearing,” he said.

And while Roddey voted in favor of calling the referendum this week, the specifics of the plan will determine if he continues to support it, he said.

“Whether I would endorse it or not would depend on the type of projects and the amount we’re asking the taxpayers” to pay, he said.

Cox questioned whether $60 million would be enough to build a new jail, much less any other projects. When Moss Justice Center was built in 1995, it cost the county $35 million.

Cox also said county leaders shouldn’t be asking taxpayers to pay for more projects when they already were raising taxes this year.

“If you don’t have enough money to operate what you’ve got,” he said, “how are you going to build something new?”

Voters rejected the last countywide bond referendum by a 2-to-1 margin in 2006. At the time, the county wanted to borrow $75 million to build or improve the county jail, court facilities, libraries, customer service centers, a recycling center and cultural venues. The estimated cost of building a jail in eastern York County then was $42 million.

Supporters of that referendum said the public wasn’t properly educated about the projects, while opponents argued they weren’t needed or should be paid for in another way.

It’s time to give voters another chance to address the county’s facilities needs, Councilman Chad Williams said. He said he would only vote to put the referendum on the ballot if it’s the right list of projects.

“I won’t rush a vote because we’re up against the clock,” he said.

The next County Council meeting is scheduled for July 21.