Union County considers bond referendum for jail, schools

MONROE – Union County commissioners will decide May 6 whether to roll out a 2024 bond referendum for voters to consider financing construction projects requested by the school district and sheriff’s office. 

Commissioners are reluctant to move forward on projects that trigger a property tax increase but have been presented with critical needs. The county is already looking at a penny increase in the tax rate with existing debt no later than fiscal year 2026. 

“I think everyone will agree – this is a tough situation,” Commissioner David Williams said. “These are hard conversations. When we start with the existing debt picture and the conversation is already hard, it’s not going to get any easier.”

Commissioners have already ruled out financing South Piedmont Community College’s request for a public safety training center. South Piedmont President Maria Pharr said the center was needed to meet growing demand for training law enforcement, fire and EMS training.

Building a new jail is still on the table but commissioners will need to come to a consensus about its size. 

The sheriff’s office says the current 264-bed jail is at capacity and requires extensive renovations as they curtail proactive policing, transfer inmates to Cabarrus County and turn away people serving weekend sentences due to space. 

Meanwhile, Union County Public Schools has requested $39.4 million in design work for a Parkwood High School replacement project ($10.7 million), construction to repurpose the existing Forest Hills High School for the relocation of East Union Middle School ($27.5 million) and program contingency ($1.1 million).

Williams said he was a hard no on the UCPS request while commissioners Brian Helms and Melissa Merrell were open to considering the repurposing of Forest Hills High School. 

Helms and Merrell continued to push back on the idea that there’s enough demand for a 600-bed jail. 

Williams and Commissioner Clancy Baucom were interested in seeing some financial models from county staff about how accepting federal inmates could offset expenses. Liles said that revenue could probably be directed toward the debt service of the building.

Helms clarified that he wanted staff to also consider the operating cost of taking in additional inmates as far as food and staffing. Merrell does not like the idea of taking in federal inmates, describing it as a for-profit business model for the sake of building a bigger jail.

Commissioner J.R. Rowell said he wanted to make sure the county wasn’t building the jail too small. He pointed to how the judicial center is not even 20 years old and they’re having to move people around due to overcrowding.

“Sometimes we have to spend money to save money,” Rowell said.

County Manager Brian Matthews told the board that his staff will need direction by May 6 at the latest to get a bond referendum on the 2024 ballot.


The Charlotte Weekly