The project to enlarge and renovate the St. Mary’s County jail in Leonardtown, more than six years in the making, was halted Tuesday by a majority of the county commissioners.
“They killed the entire thing,” Sheriff Tim Cameron (R) said later that day.
Seven bids came in for the jail’s construction, all of them much higher than the $24 million budget. An additional $7.2 million would have been needed to fully start work based on the bids, county government staff said.
The commissioners had the option Tuesday to ask Maryland government for additional funds beyond the $6 million already committed by the state. The county hoped the state would ultimately supply about half of the expected $12 million cost.
“There is no downside asking the state for additional money,” George Erichsen, director of the St. Mary’s County Department of Public Works and Transportation, told the commissioners. However, the state wants “justification of the overage” in bids.
“We depended on experts all along the way to provide cost estimates,” Cameron said later. “When it came in 18 percent higher, that’s a shocker.”
A letter from the jail project’s architect, Kimball, did not explain why bids came in so much higher than expected, the commissioners said.
Commissioner Todd Morgan (R) said the board should have made an additional funding request to the state before killing the jail project. “You don’t know until you ask. They can accept it or tell us to pound sand,” he said.
“I thought it was prudent to see what the state would do,” Cameron said later.
Commissioner Dan Morris (R) said of the high bids during the meeting, “Don’t you think there’s something wrong with that?”
“It doesn’t appear that anything’s been double counted” in the bid documents, Erichsen said.
“It’s six years plus,” Cameron told the commissioners of the jail expansion project’s planning and design.
“Six years is a long time, a lot longer than three of us sitting here,” Morgan said of the county commissioners’ tenure. “I don’t see a downside to asking” the state for more funding.
Morris made the motion to deny the new funding request, to withdraw the prior state request and to cancel the solicitation of the project and to make the necessary budget amendments. Commissioner Cindy Jones (R) and Larry Jarboe (R) voted with Morris, while Morgan and Commission President Jack Russell (D) voted no.
“I’m just very disappointed,” Cameron later said. “It’s six-and-a-half years — a lot of time and money. It was a great project — it was justified,” he said.
The current jail was opened in January 1989 and has room for 230 inmates. The new jail would have doubled the capacity, modernized the locking and security systems and added air conditioning to the building, mainly for the benefit of the correctional officers.
The current daily inmate population is frequently above the jail’s capacity.
“Now we’ll have to deal with those ... deficiencies,” Cameron said.
Later in the meeting, Russell made the suggestion that the other commissioners perhaps consider a regional jail facility.
Cameron said some counties on the Eastern Shore have given that thought, but it has not progressed. Of the St. Mary’s jail project, he said, “You either have the will to build it or you don’t.”