LACONIA — The future of the Belknap County Community Corrections Center remains in doubt following the Belknap County Delegation's defeat of a $229,500 supplemental appropriation request by a 7-7 tie vote Monday night.
Belknap County Corrections Superintendent Keith Gray has said that he will not recommend to the Belknap County Commissioners that the new center be opened without the hiring of four additional corrections officers that were cut from his budget by the delegation earlier this year.
Immediately following the vote, Belknap County Commission Chairman Dave DeVoy (R-Sanbornton) said that the commissioners will meet soon to discuss their options. He said those options include stopping work on the $8 million, 18,000 square-foot, 72-bed Community Corrections Center before work begins on the current jail, which would allow most of the prisoners to remain in the existing structure, or trying to find enough money in other departments to allow the hiring of four correctional officers.
He has in the past suggested that another option is to hire the officers and then go to the delegation once the department's budget is nearly depleted with a request for funds to finish out the year. DeVoy said Tuesday morning that is the approach that he is leaning towards right now and hopes he can convince his fellow commissioners to take, and would also recommend to the Sheriff's Department, which was also cut.
The $229,500 supplemental appropriation request included $136,500 for the Corrections Department and $93,000 for the Sheriff's Department. The proposal called for hiring three corrections officers on July 1 and another on Sept. 1.
"I think hiring the four people is the best course of action. If it creates a crisis we have the support of the people," said DeVoy.
He said that he is also hopeful that the delegation will reconsider it's action when it meets in two weeks. "Chairman Herb Vadney said they would meet again in two weeks. Maybe they need some time to talk with one another and work things out."
Vadney said at the end of the meeting that the delegation would look at discussing the budget when they meet in two weeks. And there was an indication from Rep. Marc Abear (R-Meredith) that the discussion might include the revenue side of the budget, which included a $290,810 revenue from HB-413, which is unlikely to materialize.
Commissioner Hunter Taylor (R-Alton) said Tuesday morning that he doubts that the commission will override Gray's recommendation, which most likely means that "we won't be able to use the facility. We may have to suspend the renovations and use the existing jail for another year."
He said that the current air handling system in the old jail is so bad that an attic area used to house prisoners is basically uninhabitable, which would mean transfer of a number of prisoners to other facilities, which he said would be a costly proposition.
"Basically the least expensive thing to do is to hire the four corrections officers," said Taylor, who said that he doubted that those representatives who voted against the supplemental appropriation had any understanding of how severe the situation at the jail is.
He said that seeking another vote on a supplemental appropriation would be akin to "going hat in hand to people who don't give a damn."
Voting for the supplemental appropriation were Rep. David Huot (D-Laconia), Rep. Tim Lang (R-Sanbornton), Rep. Dennis Fields (R-Sanbornton), Rep. Donald Flanders (R-Laconia), Rep. Valerie Fraser (R-New Hampton), Rep Joseph Plummer (R-Belmont) and Rep. Peter Spanos (R-Laconia)
Voting against the appropriation were Rep. Norm Silber (R-Gilford), Rep. Glen Aldrich (R-Gilford), Rep. Barbara Comtois (R-Barnstead), Rep. Michael Sylvia (R-Belmont), Rep. Marc Abear (R-Meredith), Rep. Ray Howard (R-Alton) and Rep. Herb Vadney (R-Meredith).
Rep. Howard had at first said he wanted to abstain but said he was told by Chairman Vadney that an abstention wouldn't be allowed.
The three-hour long meeting was attended by over 50 people, many of whom expressed support for the supplemental appropriation and applauded loudly when speakers supported the funding.
Sheriff Mike Moyer said that he was blindsided by a a $126,736 cut in his $2,163,828 budget which requires him to cut a full-time deputy and jeopardizes the ability of his office to carry out its prescribed duties.
He pointed to his record of fiscal conservatism and said, "I wouldn't be saying I need this money if I didn't."
He said that arrests and prisoner transport calls were up sharply and that the cut is having a devastating impact on his department. He and the chief deputy and lieutenant are serving eviction notices, delivering writs and transporting prisoners, something which he says is not sustainable.
Questioned by Rep. Howard on why his department is making arrests, Moyer pointed out that those are court-ordered arrests and that his department does not go out looking to make arrests.
Rep. Sylvia asked how the department was able to maintain services following last year's resignation of Sheriff Craig Wiggin and being down a man and Moyer said that he had not yet been elected and was not familiar with the situation.
Rep. Howard asked if the department had considered shutting down dispatch services during the day in an effort to save money and Moyer said that there was no way that would be happening as the dispatch service is important to officer safety. He said that dispatching is a key part of the operation of the department and provides a much needed service to smaller police departments.
Gray said he has a staff of of 23 full-time officers and nine part-timers for the 100 or so prisoners which are held at the jail on a daily basis, half of whom are awaiting trial. He said that he is actually 10 short of the number of corrections officers deemed adequate for a facility of that size.
He said that Grafton County, which has 150 beds and an average daily population of 91, has 58 full-time officers Sullivan County, which has an average daily population of 80, has 44 full-time officers while Carroll County, which averages 60 people a day, has 37 full-time officers.
Gray said that cost per prisoner per day is $161.77 in Carroll County, $165.01 in Grafton County and $165.90 in Sullivan County. Belknap County, by contrast, pays $103.15 and that would have increased to $118.06 if his budget had been fully funded.
He said that that the county is modeling its community corrections program on Sullivan County, which, since it built its community correction center and instituted pre-trial and post-sentencing programs has cut its recidivism rate from 70 percent to 20 percent.
Gray said the dramatic reduction in recidivism in Sullivan County allowed Superintendent Dave Berry, a former Belknap County official, to hold off on filling five vacancies there during his budget cycle.
Kevin Warwick of Alternative Solutions Associates, the consulting firm which designed the program for the community corrections center, said that over time the new approach will save the county money.
Dr. David Almstrom, a Meredith veterinarian, said that he is fiscally conservative but supports the new community corrections center and the programs it will offer. He said that on a recent visit to the jail he saw 16 men housed in the attic area who were "watching television and planning their next crime."
He said that it was important to see that the new center is properly staffed and ridiculed opponents of the supplemental appropriation by saying that their arguments amounted to saying "if we add more guards we're all going to starve." He said it was unlikely that opponents were going to get pats on the back for saving each taxpayer $4.87.
He also said it was obvious from the questions being asked by members of the delegation that not many of them had ever been inside the jail, which he said was a a dangerous and depressing place.
Former Sanbornton representative Brian Gallagher said that whatever decision was reached which would increase spending should first look at existing funds available in the budget, rather than increasing taxes.
Rep. Sylvia, Rep. Howard and Rep. Comtois all questioned what impact hiring the for officers would have on next year's budget with Comtois maintaining that opening the community corrections facility would add $500,000 to next year's budget.
Sheriff Mike Moyer, Corrections Superintendent Keith Gray and Dr. David Almstrom of Meredith prepare to testify before a full house at a public hearing on a supplemental appropriations request held by the Belknap County Delegation Monday night. (Roger Amsden photo/for the Laconia Daily Sun)
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