Commission puzzled by lack of political consensus on new jail issue

LACONIA — Can the Belknap County Commissioners and the Belknap County Convention overcome their differences to work together to address the county's need to improve its corrections system?
That was the question commissioners pondered at Wednesday morning's meeting during a lengthy discussion of the expressed reluctance of many county legislators to support a plan championed by the commission, which calls for construction of a new 94,450 square foot, 180-bed community corrections facility.
Commissioner Ed Philpot of Laconia, who chairs the county's Jail Planning Committee, said, that after reading the comments recently made by legislators about the proposal, published in the newspaper, he sees the commission's task is ''more of presenting the problem than the solution.''
He said that the poor relationship the commission has with the convention has hampered its efforts to win support for its proposal, which was developed over a long period of time when many of those now asked to consider funding further steps in the process were not members of the county House delegation.
He said that commissioners should work to make sure that people understand the need for a new facility while defending the process by which the current proposal was reached.
''We've got to remind people of how much work has already been done and get the information to them and then sit down and have a fact-based, evidence-based conversation,'' said Philpot, who said that one of the keys would be to engage more people in the process.
''There's so much misinformation out there, especially about the numbers,'' he said, pointing out that the projected $42.5 million cost is much higher than commissioners expect the final number would be.
He said that he feared that people were making decisions without adequate information, as the Laconia City Council did when it went on record against the proposal Monday night, and that the process should focus on providing ''correct and current information.''
County Commissioner Steve Nedeau of Meredith said that he agreed with Philpot's approach, noting ''we've had dedicated people working on this for over three years'' but was aggravated by the recent criticisms. ''Where have they been for the last three years? We're trying to change the system and they don't give a damn. They don't want to build anything new and we really don't need that. We've offered tours, but even our own representatives won't come out and see what the real problems are.''
Commission Chairman John Thomas said he was frustrated by the opinions expressed by legislators in an article which ran in last Friday's Daily Sun and said it appeared that many ''are not committed to doing anything, even when the engineering studies have said tear it down.''
''We've offered presentation after presentation but they just don't come. I don't know what we should we do when we're called criminals by the chairman of the delegation,'' said Thomas.
County Administrator Debra Shackett expressed a conciliatory note as she said ''let's sit down and get on with it. There's been too much acrimony, so much anger and personality conflict.''
She urged the commissioners not to dig in their heels too deeply in defense of their proposal, but to instead ''explore every option presented by members of the delegation'' and carefully consider them rather than dismissing them out of hand.
''There's a process. We should do anything we can to keep the process moving. We can look at costs and gather information. We should try to schedule a meeting with them and have a conversation with them,'' said Shackett, who urged that it be a fact-based, open-minded approach in order to come up with a solution.
She urged commissioners to approach such a meeting as if it were a Jail Planning Committee meeting and treat ideas put forth by legislators as if they had been presented by members of the committee, which has been working for three years on the problem.
''We should do anything we can to keep the process moving,'' said Shackett.
Philpot said that he believes the community corrections approach is the right one for the county. ''We hired the top guys in the country to develop this plan and there's pretty compelling proof out there that this process works.''
He said that commissioners have for many years been telling county lawmakers that there are real problems with the county jail.
''The process far predates this delegation and what we we need now is a real discussion. Don't say it isn't as bad as it is. That one doesn't hold water. And tell the truth about what's behind your reasons for not wanting to do something. If it's the money, say so. We have concerns with that number ourselves,'' said Philpot.
Two weeks ago 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.
Ricci 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 over a period of years.
The Ricci Greene study was funded by a $160,000 supplemental appropriation which passed the Belknap County Delegation by a single vote, 9-8, last August.