In a recent letter to the editor, Greg Knytych called for openness on the part of the county commissioners. Because of it immense costs of construction and in additional staffing, I can think of no more urgent need for candor than in the proposed new prison for Belknap County. The capital budget for the entire state is one hundred and twenty-five million dollars. This one project in a county with 5 percent of the state's
population has a proposed cost of over one-third of the budget for the entire state and all of its proposed projects.
Over the past several years, the commissioners have overseen huge increases in administrative costs. The run-up in the level of bureaucracy
was obscured by a "stimulus" whose chief legacy was increased national debt while the local private sector was left with nothing of utility. Increased and unnecessary staffing in the county was scaled back when the federal dollars were shut off and we are told that an efficient county administration is the cause of the reduction in the workforce. Of course, the staff employed should not have been added in the first instance but our very expensive personal, financial and administrative heads remain.
Some federal (stimulus) funds were used to improve the mechanical systems at the courthouse and this did make sense. Similar improvements
at the county jail would also have made sense but that would have run contrary to the commissioners' plans for an ultra-expensive new prison
and the 30 new staff that will be needed if it is built.
It is instructive to understand how this plan has been developed. Despite a huge fund balance, the last convention decided to appropriate an additional one hundred and sixty thousand dollars to hire New York City based consultants. At a time when many states have decided to close prisons rather than to open more of them, no public input into the decision making process was allowed. To have the consulting firm explain what has been decided is not at all adequate when the process itself was never open to either the public or to the delegates to the Belknap Convention.
"If you build it they will come" applies not only to the Field of Dreams but also to prisons. An outer limit to prison population escapes definition and
instead wiser jurisdictions than Belknap County have moved to community-based probation and parole which is the counterpart to community-based policing. The United States has far and away the greatest number of people incarcerated in comparison to other countries. Percentage wise, only Russia approaches our number and it is a distant second. Our fivefold increase in prisoners over the last 20 years is not driven by recidivism but rather by parole and probation violations. It is apparent that we need a new strategy to deal with this problem.
The process used to propose this unnecessary prison project was deeply flawed and its estimated annual carrying costs of over five million dollars
is unwarranted. In a county of diminishing economic opportunity, the answer to providing more and better jobs does not lie in creating more
government spending. Any expansion of government should be oriented to providing training for private sector jobs and not to funding the expansion of our county fiefdom.
Rep. Dick Burchell