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Fayette officials have spent $1.8M on prison

| Wednesday, June 11, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

It could be another month before Fayette County commissioners vote on how to finance a $32 million jail, most likely through a series of bank loans and a bond issue, according to the board's chairman.

Engineering and architectural fees — $1.8 million — incurred to design the facility have been paid through loans from the county's general fund, the controller's office said.

Acting Controller Jeanine Wrona said the money will be put back into the general fund once financing for the jail is in place.

Of the $1.8 million that has been spent, $1.5 million was paid to architect Crabtree Rohrbaugh Associates of Mechanicsburg, $298,670 to Sleigh-ter Engineering of Uniontown and $25,000 to Susquehanna Group Advisors, according to Wrona.

Sam Lundquist of Susquehanna was expected to address commissioners next week with a plan to finance the new jail, but his presentation might be delayed until July, commission Chairman Al Ambrosini said. Ambrosini said Lundquist is waiting for information regarding financing proposals.

The county most likely will finance the project initially through several lines of credit, Ambrosini said, meaning interest will be paid on money as it is needed. The credit lines would likely be in amounts of $10 million each. When the project is finished, a bond issue would likely be floated to pay off the debt, he said.

“Once the project is complete, we'll know the cost, and we'll look at doing a bond issue,” Ambrosini said.

Groundbreaking on the Fayette County Justice and Rehabilitation Center could occur in late summer, Ambrosini said. With an 18-month construction schedule, the facility would be ready for occupancy in late 2015 or early 2016, he said.

The county has a signed sales agreement to buy the land, off Mt. Braddock Road in North Union and Dunbar townships near Laurel Mall, for $1.25 million from Fay-Penn Economic Development Council, but it has not yet closed on the deal, Ambrosini said.

Some of the money spent so far — $22,226 — went to unsuccessful efforts to acquire a site for a temporary women's annex. Ambrosini said costs to renovate two sites that were examined — one on Iowa Street in Uniontown and the other at the Joseph A. Hardy Connellsville Airport in Dunbar Township — were too high to justify the temporary facility.

“The cost is such that we won't get a return on the investment in the short amount of time between now and the new facility being built,” Ambrosini said Tuesday.

The project could be delayed by a month if the county has to move the building 250 to 300 feet northeast of its originally-planned location in order to satisfy an objection lodged by PennDOT's Bureau of Aviation, Ambrosini said.

The bureau objected because a portion of the new jail is located in a transitional surface area — space outside flight paths, but considered to be within a “cushion of safety” for approaching aircraft. That makes the jail an incompatible land use, according to Erin Waters-Trasatt, bureau spokeswoman.

Waters-Trasatt said the bureau's objection would not stop the county from proceeding, but she said the jail site, which is near the airport, has to be reviewed by the Federal Aviation Administration.

An FAA spokeswoman on Tuesday could not comment on its review of the site plan.

A Harrisburg-based FAA employee, in an email to Commissioner Angela Zimmerlink, last week indicated it has begun its review, but noted “the proposed access to the Justice Center will impact a portion of the airport's runway protection zone.”

The FAA, according to the email, will work with the state's aviation bureau “to submit rationale supporting the new development.”

Ambrosini said he is working with the airport engineer, Baker Engineering, to determine whether the state objection requires the county to shift the jail's location. If so, he said, the project would be delayed by at least a month because various permits would have to be revised and resubmitted.

“If there is a legitimate reason to move it, I'll be in favor of moving it,” Ambrosini said. “But if there is no legitimate reason to do that, we're not going to do it.”

For each month the project is delayed, the county spends an average of $200,000 in inmate rental and related fees, Ambrosini said. To alleviate overcrowding at the jail in Uniontown, the county pays neighboring counties to house inmates.

Ambrosini and Commissioner Vince Zapotosky in October voted to build a new jail to replace the 125-year-old jail next to the courthouse. Zimmerlink voted against the project, suggesting the county instead wait to see if alternative sentencing and a new day reporting center reduced the population, making a new jail unnecessary.

Liz Zemba is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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