County Commission commits to new jail project

LACONIA — The three Belknap County Commissioners decided to pursue the construction of a new county jail and development of a community corrections system, which bears a pricetag in the neighborhood of $40-million, when the committee planning the project met yesterday to consider the conceptual design and cost estimate prepared by Ricci Greene Associates.
Ricci Greene Associates proposed a 94,450 square-foot, two-story facility with 180 beds, 120 of them designated as secure beds for inmates and the remainder as residential beds for those undergoing treatment regimens and participating in work release programs. The report projected that to operate the facility efficiently the staff, which currently numbers 28 full-time employees, would have to increase to 49 with correctional officers representing 13 of the 21 additional employees.
Ricci Greene estimated the cost of demolishing the existing jail and building the new facility at $42,579,660, which includes the so-called soft costs for architectural, engineering and managerial services as well as insurance and financing. Personnel costs, including compensation, benefits and payroll taxes, are projected to rise by $1,597,000, from $2,728,800 to approximately $4,325,800.
County administrator Debra Shackett estimated the annual debt service on a borrowing of $42.6-million with a 30-year term at close to $3-million, which together with the increased payroll would add $4.6-million to the $3.3-million annual budget of the Department of Corrections.
"I don't like this plan simply because of the cost of it," said Commissioner Stephen Nedeau. "But, it's sink or swim."
Commissioner Ed Philpot, who chairs the commission, stressed that everything possible must be done to reduce the cost of the project, but acknowledged "we're going to spend close to $40-million. That's the reality. If we could do for $20-million, we'd do it for $20-million. The issue is not what can we do for $20-million," he continued, "because that's not doing it right. We would find ourselves right back where we are now."
Philpot alluded to the condition of the existing jail, which despite being expanded twice since it was built in 1890 is undersized and outmoded. As the number of inmates has more than doubled in the last 15 years, most of the space has been converted to makeshift housing that falls short of safety and security requirements. Ricci Greene Associates, like other consultants and engineers who have assessed the facility, described the jail as "a potential liability" with a "myriad of functional and physical plant deficiencies" that render the building unsuited to renovation or expansion.
"We're between a rock and a hard place," Nedeau remarked. "The longer we sit back and do nothing, the more expensive it's going to be. We need a good facility," he emphasized. "There are standards we have to live by."
Philpot said that $42.6-million "is not the cost," adding that everything possible will be done to shrink the pricetag, without, however, compromising the integrity of the project. He reminded the committee that the commission has followed a process that began with recommendations about what sort of criminal justice system and correctional facility would best serve the county by reducing costly rates of incarceration and recidivism in the future. Ricci Greene Associates incorporated those recommendations into a conceptual plan for a facility.
The next step, Philpot said, is to choose an architect and commission a design, which will cost between $2-million and $2.5-million. Then, he explained, the process of trimming the construction could begin in earnest. "It's our responsibility to present this," he declared. "We need to step off the curb. We have a responsibility to do it and do it right."
"And do it once," Nedeau added, recalling the piecemeal approach to the expansion and renovation of the existing facility that has proven inadequate.
The committee agreed to have Ricci Greene Associates present their report to a public meeting, to which the county delegation, local officials and interested residents would be invited.