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Armstrong hits jail over maintenance

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A matter of timing: Hancock County Commissioner Brad Armstrong said the purchase of new jail locks could have been included in a bond taken out last year. (Daily Reporter file photo)
A matter of timing: Hancock County Commissioner Brad Armstrong said the purchase of new jail locks could have been included in a bond taken out last year. (Daily Reporter file photo)

GREENFIELD — Sheriff’s department officials should have noticed problems with aging jail locks long before they came up for emergency replacement, Commissioner Brad Armstrong says.

Armstrong was critical of the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department Tuesday, the same day two bids were opened to replace locks on cell doors.

Often in county government, he pointed out, newly elected officials don’t learn the ropes from their predecessors. The lack of transition and follow-up, he suggested, allowed the maintenance of the security system at the jail to reach crisis stage.

“Somebody took care of those locks four years previous, and somebody took care of the locks four years previous to that,” Armstrong said. “What really frustrates me is the transition of power seems to be so abrupt they forget everything they’ve learned in four or eight years. The bad thing is, the taxpayers are stuck footing the bill for that because of a poor transition and poor communication.”

Bids Tuesday were from Crowder Detention at $345,000; and Federal Locking Service at $277,550.

Sheriff Mike Shepherd said his department is still looking over the quotes to make sure they are comprehensive. The bid from Federal Locking Service, for example, did not include all of the locks requested.

Commissioners did not pick one of the companies. The county council was to discuss the expense at its regular meeting today.

The locks were installed when the jail was built 24 years ago, in 1988. But the life expectancy of the locks is only 15 to 20 years, officials have said.

When a new control panel was installed a few months ago, red flags were raised. Officials have been mum on the cause for concern and insist the jail is secure, but they’ve also said new locks should be installed immediately.

Armstrong wishes there had been more communication from the past administration when Sheriff Mike Shepherd took office in 2011. A new maintenance foreman for the jail was also hired in 2011, and Armstrong said that could have contributed to the breakdown as well.

If county officials had known about the problems earlier, Armstrong argued, they could have included the large purchase in a bond that was taken out last year. The expense of the control panel, about $150,000, was included in the bond.

“The question I specifically remember asking, ‘Is this all we need with the jail?’” Armstrong said of the discussion about the bond in late 2011. “(Sheriff’s officials replied,) ‘Oh yeah, that’s all we need.’”

Armstrong also criticized the sheriff’s administration for not being familiar with a 2009 study on a new jail. That study, he says, could provide insight to what the jail needs long-term even if a new jail is not built.

Shepherd said he has not looked at the 2009 study, but he said it also would have been helpful for commissioners to fill him in when he took office.

“(Armstrong) has known about that for some time; why didn’t he come in after the first of the year and tell us, ‘Hey, this is stuff we’ve done?’” Shepherd said.

He acknowledged there wasn’t much of a transition when Sheriff Bud Gray left office, but in the case of jail locks, he’s not sure whether increased communication would have pinpointed the problem.

“I don’t see any way of us knowing the locks were going bad,” Shepherd said. “I just don’t know how we could have predicted that.”

Meanwhile, DLZ, an engineering firm, has been hired to perform a study of the jail’s security systems. Armstrong and Shepherd both said they hope that will help county officials plan for expenses in the future.

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