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Commissioners OK using Fayette funds to start work for new jail

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Wednesday, June 19, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Fayette County's board of commissioners on Tuesday adopted a resolution to spend county money to perform preliminary work for the possible construction of a new county jail.

Prior to voting on the measure, the board was addressed by several county residents who requested more public information and suggested that alternatives to county construction be considered.

An undetermined amount of money would come out of the 2013 general fund and be reimbursable by any bond issue the county would ultimately float to pay for a new jail, Commissioner Al Ambrosini said.

Ambrosini seconded a motion made by Commissioner Vincent Zapotosky.

Commissioner Angela Zimmerlink voted against the resolution.

Dunbar Township resident Terry Kriss suggested two alternate possibilities: allowing a private company to construct and maintain a jail or using the vacant State Correctional Institution at Greensburg.

“You could start busing (inmates) there tomorrow,” Kriss said.

The last of the inmates were moved out of the Hempfield prison on June 3, and the Department of General Services has added the site to its list of surplus properties.

It could be on the market by July 30, said department spokesman Troy Thompson.

“This alternative would be a win-win for everybody, especially the hard-working taxpayers of this county. Who do you expect to shoulder the costs of paying for a prison for the next 30 years?” Kriss said.

As of Tuesday, said Controller Sean Lally, the county had paid more than $500,000 this year in out-of-county housing costs for prisoners.

The county jail can hold a maximum of 262 inmates. The county pays rental fees that range from $55 to $78 per day per inmate at other jails.

Ambrosini said construction costs for a new jail are estimated at $30 million.

Lally noted that if the county were to float a $30 million bond over 30 years at 3.65 percent, the total cost would be $50 million.

“We were told our population would double by 2010, it's more than tripled. We send hundreds of thousands of dollars to other counties to house our prisoners,” said Gary Brownfield, county sheriff and prison board chair.

“This prison is a dungeon. We hear complaints every day from the (correction officers). It's not good working conditions. It's totally obsolete,” he said.

A new county jail could charge for out-of-county and federal prisoners, Brownfield suggested.

“How can you build a prison and borrow $30 million to $40 million, knowing (prices) will go up, when your salary (county annual budget) is $29 million?” said Evelyn Hovanec.

She said outsourced services, including drug and alcohol rehabilitation, might be provided without full-time incarceration.

“I would love to see some other options before we make any kind of distribution of money on a plan that no one has seen. If you want this, give us your plan. Have some public meetings. Let us come talk to you and ask some questions,” Hovanec said.

Ambrosini, chairman of the working prison group, said overcrowding is only one reason to consider building a new jail.

“We cannot provide programming in our existing facility to help people. ... There are people in our prison who can't even write a check. If we don't help people in prison, we are doing nothing more than warehousing,” Ambrosini said.

Jim Killinger, prison working group architectural team leader, said sites under consideration include German, Luzerne, Dunbar Township, North Union and Franklin.

The group's final recommendations are to be presented to the public by year's end.

Mary Pickels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-5401.

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