Councilor asks county to put new jail plan on hold

LACONIA — The appearance of the Belknap County Commission before the City Council this week led to a sharp exchange between Councilor Henry Lipman (Ward 3) and Commissioner Ed Philpot over how to address the problems arising from the rising population and deteriorating condition of the county jail.

Philpot defended the commission's determination to persevere with the process of planning a new jail. He said that complying with new federal standards, including the separation of inmates by age, gender and class of offenders, would be very difficult in light of the configuration and condition of the existing facility. He explained that while there is no funding in the proposed 2014 county budget, the commission will request a supplemental appropriation in the form of a $3.5 million bond issue to the convention early next year. The borrowing would provide $500,000 for a schematic design for a new facility, as well $1 million for replacing the HVAC system at the current jail and $1.8 million for the three-year rental of 48-bed temporary housing facility.

In light of the commission's frayed relationship with the Belknap County Convention, Lipman questioned the decision to seek funding to design a new facility. He suggested instead that the commissioners request sufficient funds to ensure "minimal compliance" and shelve plan to build a new jail until the political situation becomes more favorable.

Philpot reminded Lipman that the commissioners have already invested significant time and resources in the planning process only to meet with resistance from the convention. He declared that he would continued to advocate for a new facility. Stressing the need for a new jail, he said "I don't want to be the guy on the lawn telling parents I'm sorry your son burned to death."

Lipman countered that there is a time for advocacy and a time for governance. He urged the commission to drop its request to fund a schematic design and pursue a compromise with the convention and "take whatever you can get" to correct the most immediate issues with the existing facility. Otherwise, he said that county taxpayers could find themselves faced with the rising costs of deferred maintenance and potential litigation.

Philpot conceded that "if I thought we could have a reasonable conversation, I would do it." But, he said that when the commission has sought to open a dialogue the only response from the convention has been "thank you for your input."

"For us it's a lose-lose," Lipman said. "My plea to you and the convention is to put funding for maintenance in the budget and not put ourselves in the position to be sued."

"I hope you will express the same thought to you representatives," Philpot replied, adding "we are at a stalemate in governing. There is nothing we can do. We are talking to ourselves."