The St. Mary’s County Commissioners continue to grapple with what to do about the proposed detention center expansion and completion of FDR Boulevard. At a capital budget work session on Monday, the majority of the commissioners appeared poised to shelve the expansion project in favor of immediate improvements to the existing facility. But in the end they delayed any decision until next week.
And, a vote on a proposal spearheaded by Commissioner Todd Morgan (R: 4th) to advance construction of the FDR Boulevard over the next three years was also delayed. Morgan wants the project’s third phase, from Chancellor’s Run Road to Pegg Road, advanced. That section isn’t even in the six-year capital budget. He feels it’s essential to relieve traffic on Route 235.
The three phases of the jail expansion project are estimated to cost more than $30 million, with the state expected to kick in about $12 million. The FDR Boulevard project is estimated to cost more than $25 million. The main issue for several commissioners is the debt service cost for years to come of going to the bond market to pay for the projects.
Commissioner Francis “Jack” Russell (D), who supports both projects, insists the county’s debt service burden isn’t that egregious. “The sun will rise tomorrow. St. Mary’s County is well within its debt limit.” Regarding the FDR expansion, Russell said, “If we don’t move in this direction, we will be extremely shortsighted.”
Morgan agreed, noting that the county’s debt is .8 percent of the assessable base versus the state average of 2.1 percent. Morgan argued that the jail expansion and an accelerated construction timetable for FDR Boulevard were necessary for the future of Pax River, given the possibility of another round of base closures. He said he wanted the county to be on the receiving end instead of the giving end in that next process, just as it was in the past.
Morgan noted recent reports of the county’s wealth and said he wasn’t sure he believed them, but the county was still in good shape. “We have here a fiscally-conservative governance.” He said the county wasn’t “poor and destitute” but it also wasn’t “fat, dumb and rich.”
But Commissioner Lawrence Jarboe (R: 3rd) argued that the defense downsizing may lead to “a hollow sound coming from that infrastructure” if the base size is reduced. The result, he said, “could be a lot of empty buildings.”
Commissioner Daniel Morris (R: 2nd) led the frontal attack on the jail expansion. He reacted to statements from Director of Public Works and Transportation George Erichsen that the commitment from the state for the remaining half of their $12 million share was a “soft commitment” that would come in future fiscal years. Although Erichsen said he was sure the state would live up to the commitment, Morris said, “The soft commitment doesn’t sit well with me.”
Morris said improvements to the existing facility were necessary but he wasn’t sure about the need for an expansion. “HVAC, locks, cameras, those things need to be done,” he said.
Commissioner Cynthia Jones (R: 1st) agreed with Morris. “The size and scope of this project is a concern of mine at this time.” She said with the pressure on the state budget they would be hard pressed to follow through with the second round of funding needed to complete the expansion.
Erichsen said that he was doubtful that the state would continue to agree to fund any jail project without an expansion and would pull its already approved $6 million commitment. He said only 25 percent of the entire project was made up of the expansion; the rest was for improvements such as enumerated by Morris. “I can assure yo