March 26, 2019
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County would displace Bangor church to make way for inmates

BANGOR, Maine — The Rev. Bobby Bledsoe, pastor of the church that meets in the former YMCA, said Tuesday that representatives from his denomination will be in town Wednesday to outbid Penobscot County in its efforts to acquire the building to ease jail overcrowding.

Peter Baldacci, chairman of the Penobscot County Commissioners, said the church is free to make any offer it wants but, legally, the commissioners could decide it is in the public’s best interest to take the building by eminent domain.

About 50 people attended an eminent domain hearing held Tuesday before commissioners at the Historic Penobscot County Courthouse on Hammond Street. For more than an hour, they spoke about whether the community is better served if the building located next to the jail houses a jail or church.

Sheriff Troy Morton on Tuesday outlined some of the challenges of overcrowding at the Penobscot County Jail, including some of the serious medical conditions with which many people come into the facility.

The expansion would allow space for additional services for inmates, ease overcrowding — which is stressful for inmates and staff — and allow for one-on-one consultations, which now often are not private.

“Mental health and substance abuse clearly are at the top of the list of some of the challenges that we have,” Morton said.

The extra space also would help deal with the increasing number of people being held while awaiting trial.

“Seventy percent of the people in our jail are pretrial, meaning they have not been convicted of the crimes they have been charged with,” Morton said.

He and Baldacci have previously stated that the estimated cost to build a new jail would be between $40 million and $60 million. The estimated cost of buying the property and renovating the building have not been made public, but both also have said that expansion would be less expensive.

Morton also reiterated Tuesday that the cost of boarding inmates at other facilities due to overcrowding could reach $1.4 million this year alone.

“We’ve explored the cost of building,” he said Tuesday. “We’ve explored the cost of expanding. Today, I’m before you asking you to consider the expansion of our property so that we can make sure that we run a safe and humane jail.”

Advocates for substance abuse and mental health treatment supported Morton’s proposal to move the current cramped jail intake area, nonviolent female inmates and holding cells for inmates in jail fewer than 72 hours into the former YMCA, once it is remodeled.

Pat Kimball, the former executive director of Wellspring, a substance abuse treatment center in Bangor, praised the work jail officials have done over the past 15 years to provide services within the jail to inmates with mental health issues.

“You’ve done an amazing job with that but the problem is, you’ve run out of room,” she said. “The crisis is here and there’s no place to expand. Also, it only makes sense fiscally [to expand into the former Y building]. Location is everything. You’ll be able to share staff and support each other. You’ll be able to have room so other agencies can come in and provide support services . . . coaching, re-entry meetings, AA and NA meetings.”

Church supporters, however, were not persuaded that the jail expansion was the right fit for the former YMCA building.

“We are vehemently opposed to the building which we occupy to be taken by eminent domain,” Bledsoe told the commissioners. “We love Bangor and we want to see, obviously, the county and the sheriff be successful in everything they do, but there are many other buildings in this city.”

Bledsoe said that CityReach offers a nine-month faith-based addiction recovery program that also teaches life and job skills.

“You aren’t just trying to take the building, you’re taking the livelihood and the hope and the help that many people are receiving in our ministry right across the street,” the pastor said.

The building is owned by the estate of William Buxton, who bought the property in 2013 with plans to open a denturist school. He later abandoned those plans and died in 2016.

The original mortgage on the property was for $1.3 million, but it has not been determined how much is still owed to TD Bank. A local construction company also has a large lien on the property.

Bledsoe said Tuesday that he had an understanding with Buxton that the church would buy the building. Bledsoe said that CityReach offered $800,000 for the property last year, but he has not said why the sale did not come to fruition. The church’s lease on the space does not expire until April 30, 2018.

More than a dozen church members told commissioners how CityReach has changed their lives.

Kevin McGuire, a CityReach member who lives in Bangor, said that he was homeless, jobless, hopeless and suicidal when he met Bledsoe. He also had served time at the jail. Today, he is a taxpaying citizen.

“The ripple effects of this are beautiful,” he said. “Now, I’m blessed to go out on the street and reach the lost, bring them in, show them that there’s hope. It would be a foolish move to take CityReach out of that building.”

Ali McLaughlin of Bangor said that at CityReach she found the hope and courage she needed to get out of an abusive relationship three years ago.

“I remember walking into that church one day contemplating suicide, contemplating not wanting to live, sick and diseased, addicted to drugs,” she said. “I found hope there. A hope that was so real that I didn’t have to go out and do the things that weren’t benefitting this community or myself in any way.”

McLaughlin added that she just wants “to see that building stay a church. I think that we are all fight the same mission here. We want to see hope in the city. We want to see life restored but it’s a community effort.”

Commissioners took the matter under advisement but did not take a vote. Baldacci said after the hearing that he expected a vote would be taken in a week or two but no date has been set. In the meantime, representatives of the county plan to meet with representatives from the bank that holds the mortgage on the building and a lien holder to determine if a sale agreement can be reached. If it is not, a vote on taking the building by eminent domain would be held.

“I think everyone here who spoke today made good points,” Commissioner Tom Davis of Kenduskeag said after the hearing. “But it’s a matter of geography. That building and parking lot are practically a part of our campus. The church is the people not the building.

“We can’t move the jail,” he said. “To build a new jail would cost $50 [million] to $60 million. We cannot do that to the taxpayers of Penobscot County.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Penobscot County Commissioner Tom Davis in a cutline.

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