LACONIA — A proposed $8 million bond issue for building a "community corrections" center and renovation of parts of the current county jail received strong support at a public hearing held by the Belknap County Convention Tuesday night. A vote requiring support from a two-thirds majority of county state representatives is scheduled for Nov. 2.
Supporters included a wide spectrum of the law enforcement community, including Belknap County Attorney Melissa Guldbrandsen, Laconia Police Chief Chris Adams, Sanbornton Police Chief Stephen Hankard, Laconia Circuit 4 District Court Judge James Carrroll and David Berry, long-time Belknap County Department of Corrections employee who now heads the Sullivan County House of Corrections; as well as County Convention members Dennis Fields (R-Sanbornton) and Shari LeBreche (R-Belmont).
Members of the public expressing support for the plan included Joel Weinrebe of Belmont, Alida Millham of Laconia, a former chairperson of the convention; Pat Kiefer of Laconia; Clare Persson of Stand Up Laconia; Jacqui Abikoff of Horizons Counseling Center; Laconia City Councilman Henry Lipman, former Laconia District Court Judge David Huot of Laconia and two recovering drug addicts who are taking part in programs like those that will be provided at the community corrections facility.
The proposed 18,000-square-foot community corrections center would provide 64 beds, of which 30 would be treatment beds (20 for men and 10 for women) and 34 work release beds (24 for men and 10 for women). There are no high security beds, which represent the most costly form of incarceration, in the facility. The estimated cost of renovating the existing jail, which would have 60 beds, is $1,159,300. The center would be built at the entryway to the current jail and linked to the older building through what is now the "sallyport" area.
The annual cost of personnel and programming would be $650,183, some of which County Commission Chairman Dave DeVoy (R-Sanbornton), said would be offset by increased revenue from work release programs ($100,000) and grants ($300,000). He also pointed out that future budgets would no longer see the $480,000 in jail planning funds which are part of the current budget.
DeVoy said that none of the personnel and programming costs will become part of the county budget until 2017, when only four months of those costs will be included in that year's budget. ''Our goal is a zero percent tax increase for the county.'' said DeVoy.
Project manager Anthony Mento of SMP Architecture of Concord, in response to a question from Rep. Brian Gallagher (R-Sanbornton) about the timeline for the project, said that it would take 12 months to build the corrections center and two months to complete the renovation.
''If we break ground in June of 2016 we would look to see it completed for opening in September of 2017,'' said Mento.
The community corrections center will feature a rigorous regimen of substance abuse, mental health and educational programs and services, which Corrections Superintendent Keith Gray said the county currently lacks, pointing out that 76 percent of the inmates at the county jail are in need of those programs.
Kevin Warwick of Alternative Solutions Associates, Inc., said that the proposal is based on the experience of Sullivan County (Claremont), which opened a community corrections center five years ago. Since then the rate of recidivism in Sullivan County has dropped to 18 percent and a third of those who return to jail have violated conditions of probation and parole rather than committed new crimes. Meanwhile, 72 percent of the inmates at the Belknap County Jail have been there before.
Judge Carroll said that the common denominator of those he sees in court is that they are ''human beings in need of treatment'' and asked ''how do you want them to return to the community?''
Belknap County Attorney Guldbrandsen said that the most common crimes in the county are drug-related, property-related and assault type cases and that the goal is to change the criminal thinking and behavior of defendants. Noting that those serving time in the county are lower risk offenders who have the best chance of being rehabilitated she said that the the county ''should be leaders in the state in effective criminal justice. Approving this proposal achieves our mutual goals and saves taxpayer dollars in the long-run.''
Laconia Police Chef Adams said that the so-called community corrections approach mirrors the philosophy of the Laconia Police Department and having services available in-house at the county level is a way of ''setting up people for success'' after they are out of jail.
Jeff Cote, who described himself as a recovering addict who has been clean for over 11 months, sad that he is ''a person, a parent, a child and a grand-child who is also a member of your community.''
He said that during his time spent in jail, 90 percent of the talk from his fellow inmates was where to get their next drugs and planning crimes. He said that programs to break that cycle are badly needed. ''Would you rather have them planning their next crime instead?" he asked.
Jeremy, who did not give his last name, said that he is also a recovering addict and said that it it was important to ''get people help to become a productive member of society.''
Sanbornton Chief Hankard said that most of the arrests in that community are drug and alcohol related and expressed complete support for the community corrections approach.
Joel Weinrebe of Belmont said that he spent over 10 years as a corrections officer and saw how important programs were to give hope to inmates and help them find a way to deal with their problems.
Rep. Shari LeBreche of Belmont made an emotional appeal to ''help people caught up in this terrible addiction. They need this, they need this to get better, to become productive. I'm all for it.''
Former Judge Huot, who has also served on the county convention, said that the convention should first decide whether they support the project and then have a robust discussion on how to finance it.
City Councilman Lipman said that the county's approach in seeking to mitigate the tax impact ''takes some of the fear out of this'' and that he liked the program as outlined by the commissioners.''
The convention will meet on Monday, Nov. 2 at the Belknap County Superior Courthouse (6 p.m.) to vote on the resolution to authorize the sale of $8 million in general obligation bonds to finance construction of the community corrections center and renovation of the existing jail. A two-thirds majority, or 12 of the 18 members — all of them Republicans — will be required to authorize the borrowing.
Sanbornton Police Chief Steve Hankard, Gilford Police Chief Anthony Bean Burpee, Laconia Police Chief Chris Adams, Belknap County Sheriff Craig Wiggin and former Laconia District Court Judge David Huot follow the comments at a public hearing on a proposed $8-million bond issue to build a community corrections facility and make renovations to the existing county jail in Laconia. (Roger Amsden/for The Laconia Daily Sun)
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