The expansion project for the St. Mary’s County Detention Center will remain in the county’s capital budget. The county commissioners, on a 4-1 vote, agreed to leave the two-phase project in the capital budget. Commissioner Cynthia Jones (R: 1st) opposed it, saying she wasn’t convinced of the need.
The decision came after Director of Public Works and Transportation George Erichsen explained that while the state hasn’t committed to the second half of their share for Phase 2, which includes the bulk of the new beds, the project can safely proceed without that commitment. Total cost of the two phases is $24 million.
Erichsen said he feels certain that the state will come up with the rest of the funding, but even if they don’t, the first phase would include a “shelled in” structure for the second phase that eventually could be used.
There was some discussion in previous meetings from Commissioner Daniel Morris (R: 2nd) about proceeding with needed improvements to the existing facility (such as a new intake area and locking mechanisms) but not the expansion. Erichsen explained that only 25 percent of the total project is for the expansion of beds. Inmate population bottomed out last year and is only recently increasing, so there was some concern that there wouldn’t be inmates for the expanded
But with Tuesday’s decision, Morris agreed to proceed under the proviso that some of the county monies for the jail ($5.1 million in FY ’14) come from the county’s fund balance instead of from issuing bonds and incurring debt service over the next 20 years.
Commissioner Lawrence Jarboe (R: 3rd) agreed with the desire to use the fund balance. But County Chief Financial Officer Elaine Kramer cautioned that perhaps it might make sense to go to the bond market with the jail project and use the fund balance for some other project.
Kramer, however, also cautioned against using the fund balance at all due to funding uncertainties out of the county’s control, such as the shifting of teacher pensions to the counties and the potential negative effects on revenue from future Base realignment and Closure (BRAC) decisions.
Kramer said the county’s debt compared to others was low. “Debt service as a percentage we are not even close to being out line,” she said during a discussion of using fund balance for the FDR Boulevard project.
Jones argued that the two phases were too closely tied together that the current needs couldn’t be divorced from what she feels is an unneeded jail expansion. “This is absolutely not the way to get there from here,” she said. She said she had carefully balanced the county’s needs versus wants. “This does not meet my list of needs,” she concluded.
Morris said he was concerned that as he walked around Leonardtown people feel the expansion will be used for “undesirable” federal prisoners. For several years illegal aliens were housed at the county jail and the county received a federal payment for doing so. On Monday Sheriff Tim Cameron assured the commissioners that there were no plans to reinstate the program. Morris said he was glad the sheriff made that commitment on camera. Erichsen noted that the Commissioners of Leonardtown have signed off on the expansion.
Jarboe, in agreeing to proceed with the project, was concerned that the county would have to bear the cost of the improvements to the existing facility because the state would back out if there wasn’t an expansion component. Erichsen also predicted that would happen.
While agreeing to keep the expansion in the capital improvement program, the commissioners did unanimously agree to take out 16 new correctional officers earmarked for the expansion. Corrections Division Commander Captain Michael Merican argued Monday that it would take time to train the new officers and thus the monies needed to be in next fiscal year instead of the following fiscal year.
There also is a disagreement between the sheriff and County Administrator John Savich as to how many new correctional officers are needed. Savich says 13 are needed based on the established 3-1 ratio for inmate vs. officers The sheriff is requesting 20 ultimately. Sheriff Cameron says the calculation doesn’t include support personnel needed for the expansion.
Since two of the four votes to keep the project in the budget were predicated on using the county’s fund balance, at least in part, the jail project could be revisited before the budget is adopted. The commissioners have a discussion of the use of the $30 million fund balance scheduled for March 19 and are expected to finalize a preliminary budget by the end of the month. That budget will go to public hearing on May 1.
Kramer pointed out that other departments have requested a piece of the fund balance, a portion of which has to be set aside to meet the requirements of bond rating agencies. For instance, the school board has asked for $4 million to help fund their OPEB (Other Post-Employment Benefits) requirements to cover future retiree health costs.
The commissioners did at a Monday budget work session agree to tentatively leave in the sheriff's budget monies for five community policing officers in the Lexington Park area and funding for a new Drug Diversion Detective.