The committee charged with devising options to ease overcrowding at the Penobscot County Jail made the same recommendation Tuesday that it made five months ago: The county should build a new, 300-bed facility at an estimated construction cost of $65 million to $70 million.
That cost includes the price for renovating the current jail for reuse as offices for other county departments.
Commissioners took no action on the six-page report at their Tuesday meeting, which was the result of work that began in late 2017.
County commissioners initially endorsed the 300-bed jail plan late last year, but less than two months later, they told members of the jail advisory committee to consider cheaper options, including a 150-bed addition to the current facility at an estimated cost of $20 million to $30 million that they had rejected.
The cover letter attached to the report delivered to county commissioners Tuesday said that committee came to its decision using research and data provided by the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office and a Bangor architectural firm.
“It became very clear, very early in the process that Penobscot County would spend at least $430 million by the year 2033 even if it did nothing but maintain the current facility,” it said. “Comparatively, the cost of building a 300-bed facility is also at $430 million by the year 2033.
“The do-nothing option includes the uncontrollable cost of boarding inmates at other facilities throughout the state,” it continued. “The build-to-300 option brings that uncontrollable cost inside the budget to a controllable cost.”
Committee member Brian Thibeau of Bangor told commissioners that the biggest hurdle to getting a new facility built is the public’s perception that it is not needed.
“The current facility is just inadequate, and I think the public just does not see that,” he said. “One could say that the people incarcerated in that facility don’t deserve a better building, but the staff does.”
Jim Ring of Orrington, who chaired the committee, said the decision was made by consensus. He did not poll the nine members before presenting the report.
The jail has been overcrowded for more than a decade. The capacity of the current facility is 157, but with an average daily population of about 190 during the past year, inmates have been sleeping in rooms designed for high school equivalency diploma, literacy and parenting programs. Another 40 to 50 inmates are boarded at facilities in other counties, and between 70 and 85 participate in a pre-trial release program.
Before construction could begin on a new facility, Penobscot County voters would have to approve money for a bond issue, or commissioners would have to find another way to pay for it. The cost of a 30-year bond for $70 million was estimated to add $48 annually to the property tax bill of a home valued at $100,000 in Newport.
The committee also recommended that commissioners consider alternative funding sources to help pay for a new jail. In addition, members suggested commissioners move forward with a new “enhanced members” committee that would include people with knowledge of programming needs and financing alternatives along with municipal representatives and residents with expertise in the mental health and substance use issues many inmates experience.
Commissioner Peter Baldacci said that there is a clear consensus that the county cannot continue to maintain the current facility and board out prisoners.
“The issue is, what is the most effective way to address this problem and how do we pay for it?” he said. “My concern is that a lot of these costs are speculative when we go 30 years out. I think we have to look at what is doable and what gives us the best result.”
Baldacci did not say when commissioners might make a decision.