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The St. Mary’s County Planning Commission has recommended that the county commissioners put the $35 million jail expansion back into the capital budget.

Following weeks of back-and-forth discussion about enlarging the St. Mary’s County jail, the county commissioners pulled the plug and opted for a $9.5 million renovation project last week.

“We have an issue with [jail] capacity,” said Merl Evans, planning commission member. “To take it out as a planner doesn’t make sense to me.”

The jail, which first opened in its current location in January 1989, has a capacity for 230 inmates. The expansion project, budgeted at $24 million before it was terminated, would have doubled that capacity. But bids came in $7 million higher than that in December, and three commissioners — Larry Jarboe (R), Cindy Jones (R) and Dan Morris (R) — voted to end the project.

The commissioners are now moving ahead on the repair project. It does not add capacity. At least three of the commissioners — Jones, Morris and Commission President Jack Russell (D) — agreed on that direction last week after months of going back and forth with the expansion.

In summarizing the commissioners’ discussion to the planning commission, Chief Financial Officer Elaine Kramer said, “It was a split vote about 10 different times.”

When repair work is done in a jail, inmates need to be kept away from the workforce, Evans said. “I don’t know how you’re going to do this on repairs. You can’t stack people like cord wood,” he said.

“It’s just a matter of sheer numbers,” said Shelby P. Guazzo, planning commission member.

The average daily population in the jail during calendar year 2012 was 264 inmates, beyond the 230 capacity, said George Erichsen, director of the St. Mary’s County Department of Public Works and Transportation.

Evans asked how much money has been spent on the jail expansion project so far. Kramer said it was about $1 million on architecture and engineering.

The state could have contributed up to half of the cost for an expansion, Sheriff Tim Cameron (R) has said. The $9.5 million repair project is all county funded.

Regarding the high bids in December, Evans said, “The $7 million today that looks like a big deal,” but later, “it’s going to be a much higher number. It’s just going to cost more money down the line. To take it out of the [capital improvement plan] is not good planning.”

With the jail becoming more overcrowded, “It’s something waiting to happen out there,” Guazzo said.

All seven planning commission members agreed to recommend the jail expansion be put back into the county’s budget, starting in fiscal year 2015.

Guazzo asked about the renovations to the Leonardtown library. Kramer said bids are solicited now. “Gee, what are [the commissioners] going to do if there’s an overage, take it out?” she asked.

jbabcock@somdnews.com