LACONIA — Faced with virtually unanimous opposition to a proposed $42.5 million price tag for a new county correctional facility, Belknap County Commissioners Wednesday morning said they want to take a second look at the jail planning process.
''We're taking a step backwards to see what other options are available,'' said Commissioner Ed Philpot (D-Laconia), who chairs the county's Jail Planning Committee, which has been working for three years to come up with a plan to address the problems with the current facility.
As part of that process the commission is looking to expand the membership of the Community Advisory Committee, which was formed last year to provide public input into the jail planning process.
''We have a list of people we would like on that committee and we're getting in contact with them to see if they will become a part of the committee,'' said County Administrator Debra Shackett, who indicated that some of those being asked to join are members of the Belknap County Convention.
Several members of the convention, which is composed of the 18 elected legislators from the towns and city in the county, were critical of the jail planning process at a meeting last week in which a member of the public accused commissioners of neglecting the county jail in order to force the county to have to build a new one.
Commissioner Steven Nedeau (R- Meredith), said that nothing was further from the truth. ''We've been having public meetings for three years,'' and said that it was important that people realize ''that doing nothing is not an option.''
Nedeau said that during the whole process the commission has been aware that a new facility would most likely be needed. ''We don't want to throw good money at the jail and later on have it torn down.''
Shackett said that the the Jail Planning Committee has been considering six options and that after all of them have been vetted the committee will take a fresh look at what might be the best course for the county.
''It's a good healthy process,'' said Philpot, who said that one option which will most likely be off the table will be the closing of the current facility and farming out all of the prisoners to other correctional facilities around the state.
Shackett said that Strafford County has indicated a willingness to enter discussions about taking all of Belknap County's prisoners but that would be at a much higher rate than the current daily charge which the county pays.
She said that the Belknap County Correctional facility currently has 146 inmates, 26 of whom are being held in three different counties around the state.
''At 120 prisoners we're maxed out,'' said Shackett of the current jail's capacity.
Shackett said that the jail planning committee is considering switching its meetings from 4:30 on alternate Tuesday afternoons to 7 p.m. on Tuesday nights as well as having the meetings televised so that more people can be aware of the issues which are involved and become a part of the process.
Philpot and the other commissioners said that they were not in favor of closing the county jail and sending inmates to other counties.
''What happens to a police officer in Center Harbor who makes an arrest and there's no place to take them except Dover, which is 50 miles away?'' asked Philpot, who said that local towns would incur extra costs for prisoner transportation, as would the Sheriff's Department which would have to bring prisoners all the way from Dover to Belknap County for trials and then return them at the end of the day.