Ex­pan­sion of jail stalls again

O’Con­nor pressed for for­ward-fund­ing, but ren­o­va­tion work now de­layed another year

The Enterprise - - Front Page - By JA­SON BAB­COCK jbab­cock@somd­news.com

Another ma­jor con­struc­tion project is slid­ing back by a year, much to the con­cern of a county com­mis­sioner. Now the St. Mary’s jail ex­pan­sion and ren­o­va­tion is planned to take place be- yond next year’s elec­tion, when an en­tirely new board could be seated.

St. Mary’s County gov­ern­ment is seek­ing state fund­ing to as­sist in the $25.2 mil­lion jail ex­pan­sion project, which would add a new 64-bed women’s wing and medi- cal unit to the jail, which cur­rently has 230 beds.

But the state doesn’t have money avail­able right now to tilt to­ward the project. “The state agreed that the project needs are valid, but that con­struc­tion fund­ing for FY2019 was not sup­ported due to the de­sign sched­ule,” John Deatrick, direc­tor of the St. Mary’s County Depart­ment of Pub­lic Works and Trans­por- tation, wrote in a memo to the com­mis­sion­ers. “The state has re­quested an up­dated com­mit­ment let­ter, time­line and bud­get sheet shift­ing con­struc­tion fund­ing to 2020” in­stead of fis­cal 2019.

Com­mis­sioner John O’Con­nor (R) wanted to ap­peal the state’s de­ci­sion and make an of­fer that

St. Mary’s County gov­ern­ment for­ward-fund the first phase of the project with a writ­ten agree­ment for state re­im­burse­ment, but the other com­mis­sion­ers said they didn’t want to take that gam­ble.

The com­mis­sion­ers voted 4-1 to ac­cept the new timetable and not ap­peal the state’s de­ci­sion, with O’Con­nor vot­ing no.

The amended time­line for the jail project puts de­sign award in April 2018, de­sign com­ple­tion in March 2019, con­struc­tion con­tract award in July 2019 and the com­ple­tion of con­struc­tion in June 2021, al­low­ing 12 months for new con­struc­tion and 12 months for the ren­o­va­tion of the ex­ist­ing fa­cil­ity, Deatrick wrote.

“We are all on board to get this ac­com­plished as quickly as you can. We’ve been with this project for a long time,” Mary Ann Thomp­son, sup­port ser­vices man­ager of the de­ten­tion cen­ter, told the county com­mis­sion­ers on Tues­day. The is­sue is the lack of state fund­ing, she said.

“There’s a def­i­nite need at the de­ten­tion cen­ter to have this ac­com­plished,” she said.

O’Con­nor said, “What I don’t want to see is this pushed down the road due to tim­ing” and be- com­ing a “po­lit­i­cal foot­ball” in next year’s elec­tion, when all five county com­mis­sioner seats will be open.

The scope of the jail project was an is­sue in the 2014 elec­tion. The last board of com­mis­sion­ers planned on a jail ren­o­va­tion us­ing only county dol­lars. This board re­versed that de­ci­sion to ex­pand the jail, with as­sis­tance from the state.

The all-Repub­li­can board of county com­mis­sion­ers has lim­ited abil­ity to bor­row money for con­struc­tion projects. The Mary­land Gen­eral Assem­bly granted $26.3 mil­lion in bor­row­ing au­thor­ity this past ses­sion, but that wasn’t an easy process. The South­ern Mary­land state law­mak­ers, also all Repub­li­cans, wanted to see the St. Mary’s com­mis­sion­ers grant tax re­lief as well.

Com­mis­sioner Todd Mor­gan (R) said the board had a “solid” cap­i­tal im­prove­ment plan last year “to take care of the needs of the county.”

“The plan worked. The del­e­ga­tion on the other hand didn’t like the plan … so now we’re stuck in a po­si­tion. The state is broke. I get that part. We’re go­ing into an elec­tion year. We don’t have much sup­port from the del­ega- tion. It’s got us into a real fi­nan­cial bind, not be­cause the need is not there. It’s how we go about fund­ing this thing,” Mor­gan said.

So the county isn’t in a po­si­tion to for­ward fund the jail project, he said.

“The amount of sup­port that we’re get­ting seems to be pretty nil,” he said.

Maj. Mike Mer­i­can, the county’s as­sis­tant sher­iff, said there was talk the state’s share of the project could be re­duced from 50 per­cent to 30 per­cent. St. Mary’s County is re­quest­ing $9.8 mil­lion from the state to­ward the jail project of the $25.2 mil­lion. The state will not con­trib­ute to­ward heat­ing and air-con­di­tion­ing costs, es­ti­mated at $5 mil­lion.

The St. Mary’s County jail, built in 1989, does not have cen­tral air con­di­tion­ing.

Com­mis­sioner Tom Jar­boe (R) said he was not com­fort­able in for­ward-fund­ing the jail project be­cause “there’s a lot of vari­ables in­volved here. I think you’re highly likely to lose-lose on that one” to be re­im­bursed by the state, he said.

O’Con­nor pressed the board to at least ap­peal to the state and ask for the op­tion to for- ward-fund the project. “I can’t see the harm in ap­peal­ing it … and get­ting a com­mit­ment from the state” for re­im­burse­ment, he said.

“Don’t for­get the state is very po­lit­i­cal, too,” Jar­boe said. Gov. Larry Ho­gan (R) came to St. Mary’s two years ago and promised sev­eral road projects, Jar­boe said, which still have not started.

“If we play it wrong, we’re go­ing to end up eat­ing the en­tire cost for the [adult de­ten­tion cen­ter] and the state’s go­ing to walk away and wash its hands. I don’t think that’s a good way to play the game,” Jar­boe said.

O’Con­nor said county con­struc­tion projects could be re­aligned to free up money to for­ward-fund the jail. The $2.9 mil­lion Ad­vanced Life Sup­port sta­tion isn’t be­ing built, for ex­am­ple, he said.

To for­ward-fund the jail, “that’s risky. It’s just too much money for us to put out there if you guys don’t come through,” Com­mis­sioner Mike He­witt (R) said.

“That’s a high-risk gam­ble,” Jar­boe said.

“But we won’t know un­less we ap­peal it,” O’Con­nor said.

“You can put it in writ­ing all day long. If there’s a new gover­nor, and a new Gen­eral Assem­bly, and new com­mis­sion­ers … it’s all po­lit­i­cal. And it’s un- for­tu­nate. This is a pri­or­ity that should have been taken care of 20 years ago,” Jar­boe said.

“I’m look­ing to cre­ate op­tions,” O’Con­nor said, rather than wait­ing un­til 2020 for an ex­panded jail.

In re­quest­ing to the state that the county for­ward-fund the project, “my con­cern is they’re go­ing to say yes,” Jar­boe said. “I am not here to gam­ble that amount of money on the county’s be­half. No way. I can’t sup­port that.”

“I feel the ap­peal is prob­a­bly very risky,” Com­mis­sion Pres­i­dent Randy Guy (R) said. “I don’t have much faith in our del­e­ga­tion to give us the bond­ing au­thor­ity next year any­way,” he said. In for­ward-fund­ing with­out a guar­an­tee of re­im­burse­ment, “that’s a huge risk to take,” he said.

O’Con­nor said, “if the del­e­ga­tion says ‘go screw off, you’re not get­ting it,’ we can’t do the project. It’s not our fault.”

“I think they’ve al­ready told us that,” Guy said.

“This path of just push­ing it out does not even give us the op­tion to have the con­ver­sa­tion with the del­e­ga­tion to say we need this money. If it doesn’t hap­pen, at least it’s on them,” O’Con­nor said.

“We’re not push­ing it out. It was pushed out,” Jar­boe said.



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