Fayette seeking proposals for temporary womens jail

| Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, 9:31 p.m.

Fayette County commissioners on Thursday unanimously approved a motion that allows them to solicit proposals for a location for a temporary women's jail.

In addition, the motion allows the county to have the state Department of Corrections examine the proposed sites, including one on Iowa Street that has been identified as a potential location, and to seek out an architect and a contractor for the project.

Commissioner Al Ambrosini first broached the idea of a temporary women's lockup during a July 31 prison board meeting. It would house up to 50 female inmates to help reduce the number of prisoners who are housed in rented cells in other counties until a new facility is built, Ambrosini said.

Commissioners have not yet voted to build a new jail to replace the county's 124-year-old facility, but Ambrosini and Vincent Zapotosky commissioned a $24,000 study that will examine the costs of various options to alleviate overcrowding. Those options will include doing nothing, renovating the existing jail, building another annex or building a new jail.

A prison working group composed of volunteers has been working with Ambrosini to determine the county's needs. The group's recommendations are nonbinding, but its architectural team identified the former unemployment office on Iowa Street as a possible location for the temporary women's facility, according to its leader, Jim Killinger.

Killinger on Thursday told commissioners he looked at “three to four” sites before recommending the one on Iowa Street.

The Iowa Street location is vacant, but its most recent use had been as a kindergarten, Killinger said. It is now owned by Gallatin Capital Partners Inc., according to tax records. Stephen Neubauer of Uniontown is president of the corporation, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State's website.

Ambrosini said the one-story building had adequate open space for a dormitory style facility. It has a video security system, multiple restrooms and two kitchens. Because it will still have to meet the state's requirements for a secure facility, Ambrosini amended the motion to include seeking qualifications from architects and contractors.

At Commissioner Angela Zimmerlink's urging, the motion passed on Thursday included a requirement that the county advertise for proposals from other building owners. Zimmerlink said another property owner who had been interested in selling the former Uniontown police station on East Peter Street to the county for the women's facility has withdrawn the offer after discovering the building has been condemned.

Zimmerlink said the owner, Robert Washabaugh, lives in Texas and was unaware of the building's condition.

Zimmerlink said she voted in favor of the motion only because it allows the county to seek out the information on potential sites, architects and contractors. Although approvals could be granted with signatures from two commissioners and later ratified at a public meeting, Zimmerlink suggested the board act only in public.

The temporary facility will help ease overcrowding and cut down on the number of inmates who must be housed in rented cells in six other counties. Sean Lally, controller, said the county spent $687,000 between Jan. 1 and Aug. 20 on rented cells.

Ambrosini said at least 100 inmates currently are housed in jails in six outside counties, including Centre near State College. He said the jails recently advised the warden they can't take anymore inmates, meaning Fayette is now looking as far away as Philadelphia for rented cells.

In a related matter, commissioners voted 2-1 to send out requests for qualifications from architects to design a new jail. Zimmerlink voted against the motion. Ambrosini said the county should have an architect in place, should the $24,000 study show that building a new jail is the county's most economical alternative toward addressing overcrowding.

In an unrelated matter, commissioners allocated $25,000 in Marcellus shale legacy funds to the Farmland Preservation Board and $15,000 to the Chestnut Ridge Chapter of Trout Unlimited.

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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