Hunter objects to scaled down version of original jail plan: STILL TOO COSTLY (Aug. 21,2014)

To The Daily Sun,

For the last year and a half the jail question has been the subject of considerable debate in Belknap County. It all started with what is commonly referred to as the Ricci Greene Plan. The plan was formulated by Ricci Greene Associates, an architectural firm from Manhattan that specializes in correctional facility design with an emphasis on social work concepts.

The actual facility planning work for the Belknap County facility is described in the report as a collaborative effort involving the Ricci Greene team and a small group of local people, the three county commissioners, John Thomas, Ed Philpot and Stephen Nedeau, County Administrator Debra Shackett, her assistant Angela Bovill, Corrections Superintendent Daniel Ward, Youth Services Director Brian Loanes, Architect Gary Goudreau and Executive Director of Genesis Behavioral Health Maggie Pritchard.

Out of the collaborative undertaking came the Ricci Greene Plan. It calls for a 94,450-square-foot facility with an estimated cost of $42.6 million. This spring the commissioners announced that through the efforts of Mr. Goudreau they had been able to reduce the square footage of the facility by 10,000-square feet-by reducing the size of inmate day rooms. So the plan now calls for a 84,450-square-foot facility which amounts to two jails within one facility. It contains a regular jail component with 120 beds for regular inmates divided into maximum, medium and minimum security areas and a Community Corrections Center with 60 residential beds for Intensive Program Treatment and Work Release participants.

Incumbent Commissioner John Thomas, who is seeking re-election as commissioner representing District 2, was part of the small planning group that produced the Ricci Greene Plan and he continues to be a strong supporter of the plan. Last week he publicly conceded that Belknap County could not afford a $42 million jail but he went on to say that the facility could and should be built for a sum between $30 million and 35 million. Mr. Thomas has described the plan as one tailored for the particular needs of Belknap County. What he has not done is to explain the particulars that justify such a high price.

Clearly such an explanation is called for when politicians ask the taxpayers to pay $385-per-square-foot for a county jail facility when the national average for construction of such facilities is $223.53 using union labor and $207.14 using open shop labor.

The explanation is particularly important because few people seem to understand how the Ricci Greene Plan was put together and the details of the plan itself. Dave Pollak, a candidate for county commissioner to represent the First District, in a letter to the editor in the Aug. 5 edition of The Laconia Daily Sun, while stopping short of endorsing Ricci Greene, had very high praise for the plan. He declared: “The Ricci Greene plan is the product of a well-thought out professional process that was designed to gather the input of all stakeholders in the jail design. They were very successful in developing a model that will meet our needs based upon what we, the people of Belknap County, told them.”

Mr. Pollak’s analysis of the Ricci Greene proposal and how it was formulated is seriously flawed in three rather obvious ways. First, to describe the process as “well-thought out” gives the process far more credit than it deserves. When a private individual or a business spending its own funds plans a building, an important first step in the planning process is to determine the amount of money available for the project. A responsible governmental body spending taxpayer money would do the same thing. There is no indication whatsoever that cost was even vaguely taken into account in the so-called “well-thought out professional process” that gave us Ricci Greene.

Secondly, Mr. Pollak echoes the commissioners when he asserts that the planning process included “all stakeholders.” Mr. Pollak, like the commissioners, fails to explain what is meant by stakeholders. Only the grossest distortion of the term would exclude those who are going to pay for the project. Yet there is no indication whatsoever that the taxpayers or the municipal officials who will collect the taxes to pay for the project were consulted as to the issue of an appropriate price tag. Had they been, I believe it is fair to say that the price tag would have been far below the $42 million or even the reduced figure of $30 million to 35 million now being thrown around.

Thirdly, to suggest that the people of our county somehow had a hand in telling the commissioners and their committee what we wanted the jail to include is a grotesque distortion of reality. Certainly the sensible people of Belknap County would not have suggested any of the following:

(1) A 84,451-square-foot jail facility with a total cost of 1.7 times the average square foot cost of county jail construction in the United States.

(2) A facility that (according to the those who designed it) will require an additional 20 staff members, bringing the total from 28 full-time employees to 48, in order to properly and safely operate the new facility. This would come at an additional estimated cost of $1.6 million per year over current expenditures. (See page 6.0-6 of the Ricci Greene Report).

(3) A facility that has 5,500-square-feet of indoor recreational space for the inmates, compared to the federal standard (for a facility designed to house 200 inmates) of 1,000-square-feet. (See Appendix C sections 8.11, 7.08, 7.36, 7.34, 7.50 and 7.57 of the Space Program Summary in Ricci Greene Report).

(4) A facility with 1,950-square-feet allocated to food service, including 1,200-square-feet for a receptor kitchen to receive the food for the inmates which is prepared next door in the nursing home kitchen and served to the inmates in the jail. (See Appendix C section 10 of the Space Program Summary in the Ricci Greene Report).

(5) A facility with 1,539-square-feet for a laundry, when currently the laundry work for both the nursing home and the jail is done at the nursing home laundry with jail labor. (See Appendix C section 11 of the Space Program Summary in the Ricci Greene Report).

(6) A facility that also includes,in addition to the unneeded large laundry referred to in (5) above, six (6) small “laundry alcoves” for the inmates. (See Appendix C sections 14.30, 14.40, 14.55, 14.65, 17.34 and 17.75 of the Space Program Summary in the Ricci Greene Report).

(7) A facility including, in addition to the unnecessary 1,200-square-foot receptor kitchen referred to in (4) above, seven (7) small kitchenettes for inmate use. (See Appendix C sections 7.30, 7.71, 14.29, 14.39, 14.54, 14.56 and 14.65 of the Space Program Summary in the Ricci Greene Report).

(8) A facility which contains almost 3,000-square-feet dedicated to health services including a doctor’s office, a waiting room, two examination rooms, a dentistry room, a laboratory, a conference room, a kitchenette, plus five medical beds when our county today like the vast majority of county jails in this country has arrangements to transport inmates to local health facilities on an as needed basis rather than operating an in-house clinic. (See Appendix C Sections 9.01-9.25 of the Space Program Summary in the Ricci Greene Report).

So far the only justification I have heard for Ricci Greene and its obvious excesses is that “we don’t want to just warehouse our prisoners — we want a facility in which programs can be conducted that will significantly reduce recidivism.” This is a goal that I believe is shared by most of us. But we need to approach attainment of this goal in a sensible manner.

The pool of tax money to be used for the public good is not unlimited. Many government activities are deserving: Schools, the county nursing home, police and fire protection, roads, parks and recreational areas all come to mind along with the need to make our correction facility a positive for for correction.

It is imperative that we allocate our limited tax resources wisely between these various public needs. To do so with a county jail, it makes sense to figure out first what can be afforded for the project. Then find a facility that has been built for a price in our range and which has been operated successfully. The fact it may be located in another state does not disqualify it from consideration as our county leaders should be able to look at it and decide what needs to be added to meet our needs and what can be dropped as unnecessary for us. Such an approach makes far more sense than starting with a palace of luxuries and trying to modify it down to fit our financial ability to pay.

There are a number of recently constructed county jails designed to accommodate approximately the same number of inmates for which we are planning which meet federal standards that could be modified to include the classrooms and learning center necessary for the sort of programs that are being shown to reduce recidivism. These facilities rather strongly suggest that we could build what we need for a price in the $12 million to $14 million range.

If on the other hand our county ends up with the Ricci Greene jail, even at the bottom end of the $30 million to $35 million price range spoken of by Commissioner Thomas the tax consequence will be considerable. The annual price tag for financing costs, additional staffing and utilities for the oversized jail will be over $4 million which will have to be added to our county budget.

To illustrate the impact of such a budget surge, Laconia and Meredith will face related charges exceeding $625,000 per year with Alton and Gilford incurring additional county tax obligations in excess of $575,000.

We have elections (primaries and general) coming up this fall. These elections could well determine the road we take regarding a county jail. When you vote keep in mind how the jail decision will be made. The division of labor in deciding the jail issue is between the county commissioners, who have the responsibility for planning for such a facility and the county convention (made up of all elected members of the New Hampshire House of Representatives from Belknap County) who have the responsibility of deciding how much money can be spent on the project. Thus the upcoming elections are likely to be critical on the jail issue as we are electing two of three county commissioners and a full slate of representatives.

Before votes are cast, hopefully each voter will inform him or herself on both the jail issue and where each candidate stands on the question. Moreover, it is important that each candidate spells out his or her position on the jail question. Where there is disagreement between opposing candidates public debates could be helpful. It is only through such an informed process that we can get the jail that a majority of us believe we want and need.

Hunter Taylor

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