LACONIA — In the course of planning a new correctional facility, the Belknap County Commissioners are fast nearing the point where, without an appropriation from the Belknap County Convention to fund architectural and engineering work, the process would grind to a halt. And the prospect of mustering a majority of the 18 members of the convention, 13 of them Republicans, for such an endeavor look bleak.
"They sure don't have the votes," said Rep. Bob Greemore (R-Meredith), vice-chair of the convention, on Wednesday. "I don't see us rushing into this. They won't get it. There are a number who say no way, no how. Not on my watch," he continued, "and even those of us who agree we have to do something still have a lot of questions."
"I don't think we're even close," agreed Rep. Frank Tilton (R-Laconia), who chairs the executive committee of the convention, "and the need is still there. We are still wrestling with some of the very early steps that should have been taken."
Last week, Ken Ricci and Laura Maiello of Ricci Greene Associates, a consulting firm engaged by the commission to assist with the planning process, presented a conceptual plan for a two-story, 94,450-square-foot facility they estimated to cost $42.5-million. It would have 180 beds, plus five for inmates requiring medical care. A third of the beds — 44 for men and 16 for women — would be reserved for inmates awaiting trial, on work release, undergoing treatment or on electronic monitoring. The remaining 120 beds — 88 for men and 32 for women — would be allotted to maximum, medium, and minimum security inmates as well as those with special needs.
The major feature of the project is the community corrections component, an array of therapeutic services, educational programs and vocational training to prepare inmates for a successful return to the community. Relying on the report of David Bennett, the first consultant to advise the commission, the commission stresses that the programmatic element of the facility will reduce the rate of recidivism and spiraling cost of incarceration.
Rici Greene projected that operating the facility would require 49 full-time employees, 21 more than are currently on the payroll. Personnel costs, which are currently $1.6-million per year would climb by $2.7-million.
The commission's plan rests on two fundamental propositions. First, on the strength of an assessment of the jail undertaken by Rist-Frost Shumway Engineering and architect Gary Goudreau, which was confirmed by Bennett and Rici Greene, the commission is convinced that the existing jail should be demolished and a new one built. Second, the commission believes the community corrections component should be incorporated in the design and construction of new facility.
At the same time, the commissioners insist that the $42.5-million estimate for the project is excessive and that the facility can be constructed for much less. However, they contend that in order to determine how much less the project must be designed and engineered at cost of between $2-million and $3-million and intend to seek an appropriation from the convention.
Greemore said a clear majority of the convention questions both the scale of the proposed facility and the need for the community corrections component."I don't think they've sold it very well, " he said. "They've spent a lot of money, but they're not where they need to be."
Greemore added that the commission had "pretty much cut us (the convention) out of the picture and have been closed-minded to whatever we've tried to do."
Tilton said that he believes there is unanimous agreement among members of the convention that "there is a problem and something must be done about the facility, but there are lots of pockets of skepticism." He said that before spending for design and engineering, the scope of the project should be defined in terms of "how much are we willing to pay for it."
Tilton, a retired colonel with the Army Corps of Engineers, said that he has yet to thoroughly review the facilities study, but before concluding that the existing jail is beyond repair and dismissing a plan to add to it he would seek a second opinion. Both Tilton and Greemore suggested that along with using part of the existing facility additional capacity could be constructed in stages.
"I try to be open-minded," said Rep. Herb Vadney (R-Meredith), who expressed his doubts that investing in rehabilitative services and programs would yield the projected results of reduced recidivism and lower costs. "There is just not a lot of evidence that it works," he said. "But it would require more employees. You're not doubling the number of beds, but you are doubling the number of employees."
Apart from misgivings about specific aspects of the project, Greemore and Vadney both referred to the frayed relations between the convention and the commission arising from the bitter dispute over the 2013 county budget and whether the commission has the legal authority to transfer funds between interdepartmental line items without convention approval.
"They're not willing to make concessions," said Greemore. "It leaves such a sour taste in our mouths after all that's happened. They kick us in the you-know what — then come asking for money."
Vadney noted that "there is a strong feeling in the convention that the commission has not been forthcoming with information. When you have to pull teeth like that it sets a bad tone.