Penobscot County commissioners are meeting again Thursday with the architects they’ve hired to design a new jail in an effort to keep the cost “reasonable” so voters will support borrowing money for the new facility.
Earlier this year, commissioners asked a Bangor firm, WBRC Architects and Engineers, to design a 250-bed, stand-alone jail estimated to cost $44.8 million to ease chronic overcrowding at the Penobscot County Jail. It would be built on the lot of the former YMCA building, up the hill on Hammond Street from the current jail, which the county bought in 2017.
The project was scaled back from the original plan to construct a 300-bed jail for about $65 million after commissioners concluded voters wouldn’t support a bond issue to borrow so much money. Commissioners are now tentatively planning to put a bond issue before voters in June 2020.
Peter Baldacci, the county commission’s chairman, told members of the county’s budget committee Tuesday night about the upcoming meeting after questions came up about the status of plans for the new jail.
“One of the reasons this is taking so long is that we are trying to get the cost as reasonable as we can,” he said.
Although Baldacci did not say how much architects have estimated a 250-bed facility would cost, Thursday’s meeting most likely means they are having trouble designing a facility for the $45 million price. Meetings with the architects have taken place behind closed doors in executive session, and commissioners have taken no action on approving a final design for the facility or the wording of a ballot question.
Commissioners and county officials have declined to comment on what has been discussed in those sessions.
Brewer City Councilor Jerry Goss on Tuesday said that commissioners need to act quickly on plans for a new jail before deteriorating physical conditions at the current facility turn into a crisis.
“You cannot afford to not come up with a plan, and soon,” he said. “We are putting our people and the people we care for at risk. We are a multiple lawsuit waiting to happen.”
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, 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 at a cost that has reached nearly $800,000 a year. An average of 85 inmates a month participate in a pretrial release program, so they are not kept behind bars.
The facility’s boilers are 30 years old and need to be replaced. In a power outage, the current generator cannot power the elevator, and there are 10 open staff positions, Sheriff Troy Morton said Tuesday night.
The county’s budget committee is made up of representatives from Penobscot County municipalities and members of the Legislature. It meets once a year to vote on the county’s proposed budget.
The committee on Tuesday unanimously approved a budget of $20.73 million for Penobscot County that would take effect Jan. 1. That is a 3.6 percent increase over the 2019 budget, working out to about $1.3 million more in dollar terms.
About $16.7 million of the budget — more than 80 percent — is to be raised through property taxes, with most of the remainder coming from smaller revenue sources, such as the Registry of Deeds, which brought in $1.2 million in 2018. Some $450,000 would come from the county’s surplus fund.
Funding for the jail next year was approved at $10.28 million, an increase of about $563,000 from 2019. That includes salary increases for employees, along with increases in the medical and counseling services budgets for inmates.
That still leaves a deficit of nearly $876,000 in the jail budget that Morton and other county officials will ask the state to make up.
The Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee has been holding hearings this fall to come up with a plan to deal with the chronic funding problems facing many of the state’s county jails.
The county’s budget also funds the sheriff’s and district attorney’s offices, the Penobscot County Emergency Management Agency and the county’s regional communications center, which answers 911 calls and dispatches emergency services.