Laconia urges county to take 'affordability approach' to planning new jail

LACONIA — In a letter to the Belknap County Commission, the City Council this week added its voice to those who have already expressed misgivings about the process of planning for a new correctional facility.

The council acted in response to a report by Ricci Greene Associates that recommended constructing a county corrections facility at an estimated cost of $42.5 million as well as incrementally increasing personnel, which would raise the annual payroll from $1.6 million to $4.2 million.

After Mayor Mike Seymour and several councilors recently visited the county jail, the council acknowledged "the need for improvements." Likewise, they said that they realized that the estimates for a new facility were just that and understood the commission believed the cost could be significantly reduced. Nevertheless, the council urged the commission "to take a different approach in determining what should ultimately be built" by starting with what county taxpayers can afford.

The council reminded the commission that the city budgets within the limits of property tax cap, which restricts the annual increase in the amount to be raised by property taxes, including the county tax. Moreover, the city bears about a fifth of the county tax, the largest share among the 11 municipalities.

"In doing some very rough calculations, " the letter read, "the Laconia City Council is very concerned that this project, along with the staffing, will eat up most if not all of the City's allowable tax cap increase" and "for more than just one year."

The councilors indicated their wish to maintain "an open dialog" with the commissioners about what they called "the affordability approach" and offered to meet at time.

The commissioners have insisted that estimates offered by Ricci Greene Associates are based on a conceptual plan for the facility. That plan envisions a two-story, 94,450-square-foot facility with 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. Rici Greene projected that operating the facility would require 49 full-time employees, 21 more than are currently on the payroll.

The commissioners have insisted that by designing and engineering the project, significant reductions in cost can be identified and achieved.