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Officials reviewing bids for jail locks

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GREENFIELD — The Hancock County Council is bracing to spend up to $345,000 on new jail locks, though where to buy them is still up in the air.

Public officials continued to show concern over the surprise expense that arose at the Hancock County Jail late last year, when sheriff’s department officials were alerted to a problem with the jail’s aging cell locks.

Tuesday, Hancock County Commissioners opened quotes from two companies, but because the bids were so far apart officials decided to take time to review them.

Wednesday, Commissioner President Derek Towle told the county council that he’d like them to plan to spend the maximum figure of $345,000 so money is available when they decide which company to hire.

But Councilman Jim Shelby questioned whether the county should wait until a more thorough investigation is done on the jail. The engineering firm DLZ was hired to analyze the jail and its security systems; that could take 90 days to complete.

“I feel that the locks are important enough we need to get acting on it right now,” Towle replied.

The locks are the original ones installed when the jail was built in 1988. Officials, however, have said they only have a life expectancy of 15 to 20 years.

Last year, a $150,000 control panel was purchased for the jail’s security system. That, Towle said, alerted jail officers to a problem with the locks.

Towle said while the cell doors appeared to be secure, the control panel – an electronic system that monitors each door – alerted officers that some were not completely secure. Sheriff’s officials are asking for the jail locks to be replaced immediately.

But Shelby wonders whether the county should wait to see whether the study by DLZ yields any more problems.

“It would be ideal to have a thorough study of the whole jail and everything in there, because the electronic system for the locks and the locks are interactive with the doors…. If you do something to one, it may affect something else,” Shelby said. “Yes, there’s some urgency to getting this done, so you have to weigh the two things.”

While Shelby expressed concern, the council decided to formally advertise the expense and will vote on the issue at next month’s meeting.

The county will advertise $345,000 to be spent from the county’s rainy day fund, which is the amount Crowder Detention submitted in a quote. Another company, Federal Locking Service, gave a quote of $277,550 but did not include all of the locks in its bid.

Ultimately, county commissioners will decide which company to hire. They may end up spending less than $345,000, but Auditor Robin Lowder said the formal advertisement allows them to not exceed that amount.

Meanwhile, local elected officials are still expressing concern over how the problem with the jail locks was noticed in the first place. The county took out a bond a year ago to pay for the new control panel, and they could have paid for new locks then.

Commissioner Brad Armstrong criticized the sheriff’s department this week for a lack of foresight into the problem. Shelby concurred.

“It just looks to me as if there’s a real lack of planning for capital expense needs over there in the jail,” Shelby said. “These aren’t things that just broke; these are things that wear out over a period of time.”

Planning for future expenses is something county officials have wanted to improve upon for years, Shelby said.

“We need planning, and we don’t have it,” he said. “We react to emergencies, and it just drives me up the wall.”

While the county’s rainy day fund will be tapped to pay for the new jail locks, the county council may take out a bond later this year for other expenses. If the county does that, Shelby said, the rainy day fund may be replenished with the bond proceeds.

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