The Commissioners of St. Mary’s County shelved plans to renovate the existing Leonardtown Library (shown) in favor of building a new one.

Leonardtown, MD — The Commissioners of St. Mary’s County on Monday, Jan. 26 made some key decisions on contentious capital projects. Included was the commissioners’ vote to put a new Leonardtown Library back in the budget, rescinding the previous board’s decision to renovate the existing library.

The decision creates a domino effect because the existing library space could be used by some other agency once it’s vacated. Uses by the sheriff’s office, as a senior center and for storage were bandied about but a final decision will come later. The county is currently doing a space needs study for four agencies: Sheriff’s Office, Department of Recreation and Parks, St. Mary’s County Health Department, and Office on Aging. The State’s Attorney’s Office is also seeking extra space.

Commissioner Mike Hewitt (R -2nd) made the strong recommendation to proceed with a new library. He called the renovation project: “Putting good money after bad and not looking to the future.” The renovation would not add any extra space to a facility that a consultant’s space needs study says should be doubled in size.

The decision to proceed with a new library stops the spending of more than $3 million to renovate the building which started its life as a National Guard Armory. The price of a new library is estimated at $16 million.

The county has already expended almost $200,000 for the design and engineering of the renovation. But Director of Public Works and Transportation George Erichsen said the work wouldn’t be wasted because whatever moves into the building will have to first do much of the same work.

Based on the discussion at the Monday budget workshop, the county-owned Hayden Farm property is the most likely place for the new library. Erichsen said there is plenty of room on the property for the library. The likely spot for it would be close to Route 245 in front of the new Captain Walter Francis Duke Elementary School and a future middle school.

The commissioners also addressed the request to accelerate plans for a replacement for the Garvey Senior Center and the future of the existing St. Mary’s County Detention Center. Erichsen pressed for the commissioners to consider a collocated library/senior center to save money. Estimated cost of the two separately is $25 million.

The former board shelved plans for an expansion of the jail when the bid came in $7.7 million more than the projected $25 million budget. The county was in line to receive around 50 percent of the cost from the state. Instead they opted for renovating it with security improvements and air conditioning. That will be solely county-funded to the tune of $13.8 million.

The board decided to stick with that plan. Sheriff Tim Cameron still believes that an expanded jail is needed. Commander of the Corrections Division Capt. Michael Merican explained that capacity is an elusive thing because of the various types of prisoners in his jail. But he said that national standards say having a population of 85 percent of the number of beds constitutes being at capacity. “We are right at the operational level we should be,” he said.

Merican expressed concern about jail security during the renovation, particularly during installation of the new Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) system, which is the most costly portion of the project. During renovation there will be the need to shift prisoners to another facility, at a cost of about a million a month. Erichsen said that the higher-security inmates can be moved and the lesser-security prisoners shifted around during the renovation.

One of the options on the table at the meeting was to eliminate the HVAC project. But Cameron said it was essential. He said he was particularly concerned about the county’s liability for inmates with medical problems. “That is a great exposure for us as a county and a community,” he said.

Commissioner John O’Connor (R – 3rd) asked Cameron point blank if he was okay with the renovation, as opposed to the expansion, at this time. He responded, “Yes!”

The sheriff said he does need more office space for his staff. The various discussions about possible relocation of his office, including in the Potomac Building or in the current library, led Cameron to say that his preference was to take over the entire building in which he is now located. That building also currently houses the county treasurer and the Department of Land Use and Growth Management.

Hewitt also introduced the idea of treating minimum-security prisoners differently and perhaps saving space in the jail. Merican said the idea was what was known as “restoration centers” similar to day reporting facilities. He said they usually combined parole and probation, education (GED) and mental health screening.

“We should be doing that,” Merican said, but noted that it would take all of the agencies to buy into the idea. Lexington Park might be a good place for such a facility, he said, but a center probably would only relieve the jail of need for about ten-percent of its spaces.

The decision to go back to the original plan to build a new library came after a recent commissioners’ public forum at which about 18 people spoke in support of the new facility. And the idea to collocate the senior center and the library came after petitions with thousands of names were presented asking the commissioners to accelerate replacing the Garvey Center on the Government Center grounds. Replacing that will also leave another building that can be reused.

O’Connor pushed at the budget workshop for the commissioners to pursue purchase of the vacant former PNC Bank building (formerly First National Bank of St. Mary’s). Purchase price is listed at $1,575,000, although he believes it can be had for less. He envisioned county offices such as the treasurer, tourism, or aging, on the first floor of the building.

But Commissioner Todd Morgan (R – 4th)  noted that Leonardtown’s mayor and town council would prefer to have retail in the building instead of government uses so that it would remain on the tax rolls. O’Connor said the building isn’t suited for retail and the government office activity would be good for the town merchants.

The majority of the commissioners voted not to put the purchase in the budget but they later agreed to continue to look at the building as an option.

The commissioners, at the insistence of Hewitt, also agreed to put monies in the capital budget for the renovation the two buildings on the Patuxent River Naval Air Museum property once the new museum opens. He said the buildings could be used as a gathering spot for people waiting to get access to the base and also could be a place for meetings.

The estimate to renovate the two buildings, including the current museum facility, is more than $550,000. The project would also include parking to the rear of the existing museum building.

Morgan questioned why the defense community hadn’t stepped forward to help with the museum.

The Patuxent River Naval Air Museum Association has also requested $130,000 to help with operation of the museum. The Navy recently pulled all funding from the museum. Hewitt would like the museum to come under the operation of the county instead of an independent board.

The commissioners still have several more budget workshops before they finalize a budget to take to public hearing in April. They have a number of big decisions to make in their operating budget, including how to address Interim School Superintendent Scott Smith’s recommendation of a $7 million increase in funding from the county.

Contact Dick Myers at news@thebaynet.com