Expansion of jail stalls again
O’Connor pressed for forward-funding, but renovation work now delayed another year
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.