Penobscot County commissioners have chosen a Bangor architectural and engineering firm to design a new jail for the county. But in the process of choosing WBRC Architects and Engineers, the county has again changed the cost and scope of its plans for a replacement of the current aging and overcrowded jail on Hammond Street.
County commissioners on Tuesday voted unanimously to pay WBRC $267,420 to design what is now expected to be a 250-bed, stand-alone jail estimated to cost $44.8 million — less than two months after commissioners sought bids from firms to design a 300-bed, $65 million jail. Commissioners plan to present a bond package to voters to pay for construction at the June 2020 primary election.
While county commissioners had previously decided on a 300-bed jail to be built in the parking lot behind the current Penobscot County Jail, the latest working plan is for 250 beds at a location that has yet to be decided.
The new jail could still go in the parking lot behind Penobscot County Jail, as originally planned when the county issued a request for bids from design firms, or it could go on the lot of the former YMCA building, up the hill on Hammond Street from the current jail, that the county bought in 2017 with the idea of using it to ease overcrowding at the county jail.
It was unclear Tuesday whether the YMCA lot is large enough for the proposed structure or if the county would have to buy additional property.
By endorsing a 250-bed jail, commissioners rejected the recommendations of an ad hoc committee, along with Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton, whose members said the county needed a 300-bed facility to be able to improve medical services for inmates, including substance use disorder treatment, and to offer a wider variety of educational programs.
WBRC worked with that committee on a $75,000 preliminary study about the need for a new correctional facility that led to the recommendation of a 300-bed facility.
While they supported a 300-bed facility in the past, commissioners have also consistently expressed concerns about the cost.
“We saw the significant cost of a 300-bed facility and also heard concerns in meetings with the architects about the complexity of building on the [parking lot] hill and saw we could save the taxpayers millions,” Peter Baldacci, chairman of the county commission, said following Tuesday’s vote.
He also said that the jail population has decreased slightly over the past few months, with between 200 and 250 inmates in the current jail and boarded out to other facilities compared with numbers between 250 and 300 on which the ad hoc committee based its recommendation.
Over the past two months, local political activists have urged commissioners to consider how proposed reforms to the criminal justice system could reduce the number of people in Maine’s jails in the near future. Commissioners said Tuesday that those legislative proposals factored into their decision to reduce the number of beds in a new facility.
The current facility, which is licensed to hold 157 inmates by the Maine Department of Corrections, has been overcrowded for more than a decade. With an average daily population of about 190 last year, inmates have been sleeping in rooms designed for high school equivalency diploma, literacy and parenting programs. Another 40 to 50 inmates have been boarded at jails in other counties, and between 70 and 80 have been participating in a pretrial release program.
Commissioner Andre Cushing said Tuesday that if overcrowding at the new correctional facility becomes a problem, the current jail could be used “for overflow” if it is not remodeled to be used by other county departments.
The county sought bids in early May for a 300-bed facility and opened them May 21. Over the past month, commissioners Morton and Treasurer John Hiatt have met in executive sessions with the three lowest of the five bidders — SMRT Architects and Engineers and LaBella Associates, both of Portland, and WBRC.
Last week, commissioners asked those firms to submit a new bid based on a 250-bed plan instead of 300.
The initial design costs for the new correctional facility will be paid for out of reserve funds, according to Baldacci.
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