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Seven bids came in to expand the St. Mary’s County jail and all of them were too high — at least $7.2 million over budget, the commissioners were told Tuesday.

Three of the commissioners said they would not spend any more money on the $24 million project, and now county staff is investigating why the bids came in so much higher than estimates.

“I don’t have much hope of it moving forward,” Sheriff Tim Cameron (R) said Wednesday of the jail expansion project.

Bids on the jail project were ready to go out in March, but weren’t issued until August.

The commissioners have an extra $4.8 million available for building projects from closed-out accounts and were given three options for its use, one of which was to go toward the higher jail costs. The state is supposed to fund 50 percent of the project and has already committed $6.2 million.

The commissioners agreed to ask the state for more money next week.

“My question is why? Why is it this far off?” said George Erichsen, director of the St. Mary’s County Department of Public Works and Transportation. He said there are eight line items in the bid that caused a $5 million difference.

“I think we should try to investigate every avenue to save this project,” Commission President Jack Russell (D) said.

The bids are good until Feb. 19, 2013, said Elaine Kramer, chief financial officer for county government.

If the jail expansion isn’t built as designed, it will be full again in 10 years, said Capt. Michael Merican, commander of the detention center.

Opened in January 1989, the jail currently has capacity for 230 inmates. The jail expansion would double that capacity. There were 256 inmates there on Wednesday, Cameron said.

“I think the project’s too big,” said Commissioner Cindy Jones (R). “I certainly will not approve any additional spending or borrowing on a project I think is too big.” Commissioners Dan Morris (R) and Larry Jarboe (R) agreed.

“I believe part of the problem with the jail was this local preference clause,” Jarboe said, which allows a St. Mary’s County business to be awarded county government contracts even if it is not the lowest bidder.

“We didn’t have a local vender preference on this,” Kramer said, because state and federal funds are involved.

Morris asked if the jail’s design could be scaled down.

“Realistically we can’t get there from here,” Kramer said.

“I would like to see the whole thing sent back to the designers. We didn’t cause the situation,” Morris said. “We’re talking $7.2 million and I don’t think that’s reasonable.”

“We all realize something’s screwed up in the system,” said Commissioner Todd Morgan (R), and staff is looking into it.

If the project does not advance, the sheriff said the existing jail “has deficiencies and limitations and it’s overcapacity. It would continue to degrade. We would do the best with what we have.”

But to call the expansion project too big “to me that’s indicative of someone who’s never understood the project,” Cameron said.

jbabcock@somdnews.com