SKOWHEGAN – Calling it “an absolute pleasure” to work with the town of Madison, the chairman of Somerset County commissioners said Tuesday the site plan for a $30 million jail is awaiting final approval by the Madison planning board.
“It’s before them now,” said chairman Paul Hatch. Hatch said the process of working with Madison has been smooth. “They have been very welcoming.”
Madison and Somerset counties are sharing the costs of extending water and sewer lines down Route 201 to the jail, a project that will allow for eventual commercial development in that area.
“Madison has already had a number of inquiries, from both small and large businesses, that are extremely interested in locating there,” Hatch said. “It’s a win for us and a win for them.”
Hatch said that while the commissioners are waiting for final approval from Madison and for a bevy of state and federal permits, the board has been vigilant in cutting costs from the proposed jail construction.
“Just because we have $30 million doesn’t mean we have to spend it,” he said.
Because jails and prisons are specialty construction, Hatch said, much of the construction and equipment can’t just be bought at a hardware store. Still, he said, costs are being contained. “We are monitoring every expenditure and are requiring itemized bills from the architects.”
Some of the individual cuts include:
. Downsizing canopies over five outdoor recreation areas that would have cost $90,000 each to smaller units that cost that much for all five.
. Downsizing the jail’s lobby.
. Changing the shape of the building to allow for maximum sunlight and natural light for prisoners that saves nearly $1.5 million.
. Replacing the proposed “fancy” brick exterior with steel siding.
. Constructing the adjacent Sheriff’s Department with wood and Sheetrock rather than enclosing it in the “secure” construction of the jail.
. Providing a bay to allow for in-house vehicle maintenance.
“We are being as frugal as we can be while still building a jail that can function,” Hatch said.
The jail was approved by voters last fall after a hard-fought campaign by the commissioners. They said that the jail was desperately needed to avoid extraordinary boarding costs because Somerset County’s inmates outnumber its ability to house them. In addition, jail construction costs are $280 to $380 per square foot and are rising at 10 percent per year.
As of Tuesday, Somerset County already had spent more than half of its $434,000 boarding budget.
The 100-year-old jail is operating under a state variance allowing the county to board 55 rather than 45 inmates. As of Tuesday, 18 inmates – nine of them women – were being boarded at other jails at a cost to the county of $125 a day. The new jail is expected to hold more than 170 inmates.
Once the jail is completed, not only will the county have room for its own prisoners, which will save a half-million dollars a year, but it will be able to charge other counties and U.S. immigration to board their prisoners at Somerset’s facility. This could, over time, pay for the initial construction costs, Hatch maintained.
“The cost of renting beds in other jails is now over $100 a day, a price that is four times higher than it was a decade ago,” Hatch said. “There is no reason to believe that cost won’t continue to rise. A conservative estimate is that we could collect $22 million in rent fees before we need all the cells ourselves. That is roughly the cost of the jail construction.”
Hatch said that once the construction loan for a new jail is retired, more than $4 million a year will be saved and, over a 30-year period, the savings are “even more significant.”
Hatch said that the faster the jail can be built, the more money the county will save. “We are ready to run the utilities in there and get the ground work done as soon as the permitting process is complete.”
Correction: A shorter version of this article appeared on page B3 in the State edition.