- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Most of them were going along reluctantly with the sheriff’s plan to renovate and double the size of the St. Mary’s County jail. So when construction bids came in much higher than expected, the county commissioners killed the project.
The jail expansion was projected to cost $24 million, and the hope was that the state government would pay half of that. But all seven of the bids were at least $7 million higher than that.
Forget it, three of the five commissioners said. They were not kicking in another $7 million of county money. The plan for the expanded jail is dead.
At some point, when the costs of government projects escalate, elected officials at all levels of government should step up and say no more often than they do.
But the commissioners had other options first in this case. They could have rebid the project, with or without making alterations in hopes of bring the price down. That has happened before on other county construction projects.
They could have gone to the state government and asked for more money. They already had a promise of $6 million and were expecting more.
Even if these alternatives were not ultimately successful, they would at least buy time, preserving the state’s funding commitment while giving the sheriff and the detention center staff time to regroup and redesign.
Instead, on a 3-2 vote, the commissioners decided to just shut it down. The time and expense of six and a half years of planning, design and lining up funding have come to nothing.
The jail is still overcrowded, often well beyond its 230-bed capacity. The locks still don’t work as they should. There is still no air conditioning for the jail’s staff.
Look, the jail is not supposed to be a Holiday Inn. Everybody knows that. But there are standards that have to be met for the safety of staff and inmates and to avoid lawsuits. And except for those being held before trial for crimes that will send them to state prison if convicted, the inmates will be back in the community soon, usually after no more than 18 months. Many of them are currently on work release. They are friends, family and neighbors of the rest of us.
Along with punishing those convicted of misdeeds, it is to the community’s benefit to emphasize rehabilitation as well. Not set up a school for criminal behavior by throwing everyone together in crowded conditions that breed violence.
Eventually, with a rapidly growing population in St. Mary’s, something will have to be done about the overcrowded jail.
It will be up to Sheriff Tim Cameron to come back with a new plan and try to sell it to the commissioners. He may not have the stomach for that now after the majority of the commissioners acted without any real interest in his ideas of what to do after the bids came in high. But he is no doubt aware of it.
And he will essentially be starting at square one, with no guarantee that the state will be willing to help fund a scaled-back project at all.