News from the Tennessee Valley Columnists
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 18, 2005
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SCOTT MORRIS

$20 million jail seems like a crime

If you haven't driven through downtown Decatur recently, go see one of the most remarkable architectural achievements in the county's 187-year history.

It's a brick and mortar bastion spread over several acres at First Avenue and Lee Street Northeast. It features the latest in building technology from floor to ceiling.

I guess we should all be proud of our new $20 million county jail, but I get angry every time I drive by it.

I get mad at the federal judge who decided our long-standing jail was overcrowded and ordered that we build a new one, although he probably did the humane thing.

I get angry at county commissioners who approved the spending and subsequent cost overruns, although I'm not sure they had any alternative.

Mostly, though, I get angry at the people inside the jail for making the structure necessary.

I know I'm supposed to feel compassion for them, and I do to a degree. It's impossible to put myself in their shoes. I don't know what led to their bad choices, what kind of problems contributed to their incarceration.

Still, the absurdity boggles all rationale.

The 111,064 residents of Morgan County have to spend $20 million to house a few hundred troublemakers.

If you don't care, or wonder why you should care, get out of town. Follow the highway to our rural county roads.

The grass growing through the cracks in the asphalt is a stark contrast to the elaborate jail-construction project on First Avenue.

Commissioners took $1.7 million from the Road and Bridge Fund last week to help with jail costs and other expenses in 2006. This comes one year after they stripped $1.2 million from the road money to balance the general budget.

Commissioners voted unanimously for the move, but with reluctance.

"I don't know how long Morgan County can survive taking millions and millions out of the road and bridge," said District 3 Commissioner Kevin Murphy. "You can look at some of the roads and see that we need all the money we can get to maintain them."

It's enough to make you long for a simpler bureaucracy.

In the early 1800s, Morgan County assigned road maintenance to the families who lived along those roads.

Officials made these assignments from the old red-brick courthouse at Somerville, which at the time was the most impressive architectural achievement of our county government.

It dwarfed the simple jailhouse across the street.

Scott Morris Scott Morris
DAILY City Editor

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