$24K prison-study deal creates conflict on Fayette commission

| Wednesday, July 17, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Two Fayette County commissioners on Tuesday approved a $24,000 no-bid contract to an architectural and engineering team for a prison-needs assessment.

The approval by commissioners Al Ambrosini and Vincent Zapotosky prompted the third commissioner, Angela Zimmerlink, to question both the selection process and the item's last-minute addition to the board's agenda for a public meeting.

At the outset of Tuesday's meeting, Ambrosini amended the agenda to include approval of the contract with Sleighter Engineering of Uniontown and Crabtree, Rohrbaugh & Associates Architects of Mechaniscburg.

He and Zapotosky later voted in favor of awarding the contract, with Zimmerlink dissenting.

Ambrosini said a prison working group that has been exploring the possibility of a building a new prison to replace the county's 124-year-old jail recommended the team for the study. Because the team is providing a professional service, state law does not require the county to seek bids for the $24,000 study, he said.

The team will take two months to prepare a report detailing the county's options and costs associated with addressing various problems at the jail, Ambrosini said, including overcrowding and inadequate facilities.

It will place a per-inmate cost on the county's options, which will range from making no changes to building a new prison, said Controller Sean Lally.

“This step we're taking here today is certainly an important step,” Ambrosini said. “But the important part of this step is to provide due diligence.”

Although the county was not required to obtain cost comparisons from other firms, Zimmerlink said commissioners have “no excuse” for failing to solicit other proposals.

“The question is, did the commissioners do a selective process to arrive at the best possible price for these services?” Zimmerlink said. “The answer is no.”

She questioned the item's last-minute addition to the agenda. She noted that most items are placed on the agenda a week in advance, giving residents prior notice of the board's intentions so they can comment prior to a vote.

Ambrosini said he did not know until after last week's agenda meeting that the firm had put together a proposal.

He said he motioned for the last-minute addition because finding a solution for the prison's problems is “time-sensitive.”

“Every month we delay finding our solution ... it's going to cost the taxpayers $100,000,” Ambrosini said.

According to Lally, the county is on track to spend $1.5 million this year to house inmates in other counties because of overcrowding at the aging prison in Uniontown. He previously advised the board that current low interest rates on municipal bonds could go up at any time.

Zapotosky said the prison “clearly has a population issue” that must be addressed. In addition, he said various other fixes are needed because of its antiquated facilities.

Liz Zemba is a reporter for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-601-2166 or lzemba@tribweb.com.

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