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Commission to delegation: Don't ignore the jail

September 29, 2010
OSSIPEE — Lawmakers want to pass a frugal county budget next year. But County Commissioners say they ought to consider spending more on the jail, where there are considerable liability concerns.

The purpose of the joint meeting between the legislative delegation and county commissioners on Sept. 20 was to review the second quarter budget numbers for this year and to discuss budget policy for next year. The legislative delegation is a group of 14 state representatives who approve the county's budget, which the commissioners manage.

The commissioners cited an independent analysis of the jail from John Alese of the National Institute of Corrections Jail Center. Alese based his findings on site visits he made in August. Among his findings are that the jail appears to be understaffed and the surveillance system is inadequate because the image quality is poor and the cameras leave certain angles uncovered. In addition, the ergonomics of the control room "are not conductive to staff comfort… and contribute to fatigue and muscular pain," wrote Alese.

"The consultant's observations of daily activities revealed that existing staffing levels may not provide sufficient staff to ensure the safety of the staff, the inmate population, and the community," wrote Alese. "There is also a question of whether existing staff levels could adequately cover an inmate disturbance or an emergency such as a fire."

The jail has 27 employees but needs about 40, according to county commissioners.

Further, Alese noted that the security of the outside is also inadequate. The exterior exercise yards for both men and women are uncovered.

"With a lack of a secure perimeter barrier, intruders can easily throw dangerous and deadly contraband into the exercise yards," said Alese.

Commissioner Chip Albee illustrated the importance of having adequate security with a story about a man who hung himself while in custody in Hampton. Albee said the incident cost the town over $500,000.

"We need to avoid that kind of liability and the way we do it is having the appropriate number of people working there and also having appropriate surveillance cameras on board," said Albee. "We do have staffing issues at the jail and we have for a long time. There has been a resistance to spending money at the jail."

Wakefield Police Chief Ken Fifield came to the meeting to tell delegation members that a proposed policy, aimed at mitigating the staffing shortage at the jail, would actually put a burden on municipal police departments across the county. If implemented, the policy would force police officers to book arrest suspects themselves instead of having jail employees do that work, which they have done historically.

Having jail staff do the bookings allows officers to get back on the road as quickly as possible. That's especially important for small towns that may only have one officer on duty at night, said Fifield. Officers could get tied up with the booking process for two to three hours — for Wakefield Police that could mean 1,000 hours of overtime.

"You may save a little bit at the county level but your passing the burden to the local level," said Fifield.

Delegation Chair Betsey Patten (R-Moultonborough) replied that a subcommittee of delegates ought to examine the issue in detail. The subcommittee will listen to both sides, she said adding the chief may want to put his concerns in writing.

Commission Chairman David Sorensen said the policy is in draft form and not scheduled to go into effect until 2011.

In addition, there are structural issues at the jail. Commissioners are still in discussions about fixing the end wall at the administration wing of the jail. This wall has nothing to do with retaining inmates, said Patten.

It's tipping by about an inch because of thermal expansion. Although the wall isn't in danger of falling over, it still needs to be repaired. Currently, the county's insurance company and an engineer hired by the county are in disagreement about what needs to be done to fix it.

Albee said the delegation should have bonded the jail project to protect the county from these kinds of errors. The jail is about seven years old.

The jail's woes complicate the delegation's desire to approve another lean county budget next year. Last year, county taxes went down because there were increases in revenue and only modest increases in spending. The county budget is about $23 million.

Delegation members tossed around some projected targets for the 2011 budget.

Delegate Karen Umberger (R-Kearsarge) suggested they limit the budget increase to the rate of inflation excluding healthcare costs, which are largely beyond the county's control. Delegates also mulled excluding the cost of the new nursing home, which is under construction. But some delegates argued that all spending should be taken into account.

No firm decisions were made, but Patten said she didn't want to see huge increases like the ones previous boards of commissioners have brought to the delegation.

"Two years ago, the commissioners came in with an increase of between 12 and 17 percent and that sent us into shock and into confrontational mode with commissioners," said Patten. "Last year we worked very well."

The second quarter numbers of the 2010 budget look good, said officials. As of June 30, the county has spent 42 percent of its budget and 52 percent of its projected revenues have been received. The nursing home generated $500,000 of additional revenue this year, said officials.

But Umberger noted that she had hoped to get the budget in advance of the meeting.

Sorensen said the commission would try to get their proposed budget out ahead of time in December.

The commissioners are also looking at making the county administration building more energy efficient. Sorensen noted the building's air conditioner and heater are known to run at the same time. Sorensen said an energy audit revealed that making improvements could save about $25,000 per year but the initial cost is about $125,000.

The next legislative delegation meeting will be held on Monday Dec. 13, at 9 a.m. at the county complex on Water Village Road. At that time, commissioners will present their proposed 2011 budget.

Ossipee resident David Babson complained that only eight of the 14 delegation members attended the meeting. Babson is running for state representative and would be on the delegation if elected. These delegates were absent: Susan Wiley (D-Sandwich), Ed Butler (D-Hart's Location), John Roberts (R-Tamworth), Dino Scala (R-Wakefield), Gene Chandler (R-Bartlett), and Bob Bridgham (D-Eaton).

Martin Lord Osman
Brewster Academy
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