Fayette commissioners vote to suspend work on $32 million jail
Two Fayette County commissioners on Tuesday voted to suspend all work on a proposed $32 million jail until other options are explored.
The move prompted cheers from residents who questioned whether taxpayers could afford it in lieu of potentially less costly alternatives but raised questions from others who contend the 125-year-old jail in Uniontown is overcrowded and has no space for programs to curb recidivism.
Commissioner Vincent Zapotosky made the motion to halt work on the project as it stands. Commissioner Angela Zimmerlink voted in favor of the motion — it was similar to one she proffered in October that died for lack of a second —while Commissioner Al Ambrosini dissented.
Many of those in the standing-room-only meeting room at the Public Safety Building in Uniontown applauded the move.
“It's long past due,” said Jerrie Mazza of Franklin Township. “It's time to disband Al's select prison working group and the three commissioners to have their work sessions.”
Others who favored the suspension cautioned that change is still needed, provided it's accomplished through an open planning process involving all three commissioners and the public.
“No one has said you don't need it,” said Kathryn Jones of Uniontown. “It's the process that's been gone about, in trying to push this thing down our throats.”
Under Ambrosini's guidance during the past two years, volunteers with a Prison Working Group met monthly in public sessions to plan the jail. Architect Crabtree Rohrbaugh & Associates of Mechanicsburg drew up plans and prepared construction bids, but Ambrosini could not persuade Zimmerlink or Zapotosky to sign off on running the ads.
Zimmerlink has said repeatedly that she has been denied access to information and documents, including the architectural plans. Zapotosky said he was stymied for several months in his efforts to obtain the drawings, even though Ambrosini noted that the Prison Working Group's meetings were open to the public.
Sean Cavanagh, a former commissioner who attended the meeting, advised Ambrosini that residents are unhappy with the manner in which the project has advanced.
“The taxpayers of Fayette County are angry with your arrogance, your judgment and your butt-backward planning,” Cavanagh said. “We don't need an albatross. We don't need a Taj Mahal. We don't need a white elephant.”
Zapotosky said he has not given up on the idea of a new jail.
“My motives here are to still build a jail,” Zapotosky said. “But I want to have everybody who deserves to have a say in it, to have a say in it.”
Apprised of the board's action, District Attorney Jack Heneks said he was disappointed because the county “desperately” needs a new jail.
“The jail is beyond obsolete,” Heneks said. “It does not work. The overcrowding will continue, despite the court and my best efforts to cut down on some of the commitments, or move people to the state as quickly as possible.”
Heneks said the delay will funnel thousands of dollars monthly toward inmate rentals in other counties, instead of into programs to stop recidivism or help offenders address drug and alcohol addictions.
“Now all of that is on hold and we are back to treading water,” Heneks said. “I am not sure how long we can hold out before we drown.”
Warden Brian Miller, who was not at the meeting, said overcrowding and lack of space at the jail limits his ability to help inmates with addiction and mental health problems.
“I don't think people realize how crucial it is to building a new facility,” Miller said. “Our emphasis should be on rehabilitation, but with the prison we have now, you can't do it. There's no way. It's impossible.”
Zapotosky wants the commissioners to begin holding work sessions on the possibility of new jail before potentially proceeding to the construction phase. He and Zimmerlink said the sessions previously were unanimously approved by the board, but were never advertised or initiated.
Plans to date had called for the jail to be built at a location off Mt. Braddock Road in North Union and Dunbar townships. The county is under contract to buy the land for $1.2 million.
Zapotosky said he wants to explore other options, including possibly putting a jail in downtown Uniontown. The existing jail is in the city, next to the courthouse.
“I feel we can do this project downtown cheaper and as efficiently as we could outside (the city),” Zapotosky said.
Some who attended the meeting questioned Zapotosky's failure to take action to try to suspend the project sooner, noting he had sided with Ambrosini on moving forward with it for nearly two years.
“You kept the process going,” said Terry Kriss of Dunbar Township. “Why did it take you two years and $2 million?”
Jeanine Wrona, acting controller, said the county has spent just more than $2 million on the new jail. As of June, those costs included $1.5 million to Crabtree Rohrbaugh, $298,670 to Sleighter Engineering of Uniontown and $25,000 to Susquehanna Group Advisors.
Zapotosky said he was on board with the project until his efforts to acquire more specific details allegedly were stymied.
“Am I a day late and a dollar short?” Zapotosky said. “You betcha. But I'd rather be a day late and a dollar short than a month late and broke.”
Ambrosini said delaying the project will continue to cost taxpayers about $2.5 million annually to transport and house inmates in other counties because of overcrowding and will delay programs to reduce recidivism.
“We can dance around these issues all we want,” Ambrosini said. “The fact is, a replacement facility is needed.”
Ambrosini did not respond to calls from people in the audience that he resign as board chairman, and as a commissioner, for allegedly ignoring residents' pleas over the past two years to consider options other than a new jail.
Liz Zemba is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-601-2166 or firstname.lastname@example.org.