A new Luzerne County prison would be great, but paying for it is a problem, according to some county council members.
In response to Monday’s death of an inmate and prison guard, county Manager C. David Pedri announced Tuesday he is renewing a past push for a new prison that he hopes to name in honor of the fallen guard, Kristopher Moules.
Moules and inmate Timothy Darnelle Gilliam Jr. smashed through a closed elevator door and fell several floors down the elevator shaft to their deaths during an altercation, Pedri said. The county has hired an expert to determine why the elevator door opened. The elevator had passed state inspection.
“The idea of a new prison is wonderful, but where does the money come from?” said Councilman Eugene Kelleher.
He expects some will call for state funding assistance, but said he isn’t optimistic because the state has its own budgetary challenges. State legislators never fully funded county court branches as required years ago, and Pennsylvania is one of only two states in the country that require counties to fund indigent defense, he said.
For now, Kelleher advocates a thorough review of all prison policies and procedures and staffing levels to make the county’s aging Water Street prison in Wilkes-Barre — the oldest part of which was built in 1868 — as safe as possible.
The prison system employs about 300 people at Water Street and a nearby building for minimal offenders.
Kelleher said the costs of adding staff or other enhancements may reduce the decision to one question: “What’s a human life worth?”
The county faces about $351 million in debt repayments through 2030 and has only several million left from past borrowing to cover future capital expenses. Another major proposed project surfaced this week with a 911 consultant’s recommendation that the county spend $19.3 million to switch to a new digital emergency radio communications system to replace an analog system that will become obsolete in 2020.
Meanwhile, annual budget woes are around the corner because the 2016 budget relied on $7 million in revenue that won’t be available again or is earmarked for other purposes. County officials also must continue finding extra funds to plug a $9.4 million running deficit.
Council Vice Chairman Tim McGinley said he believes an independent assessment of both the current prison and future options. He said he will bring that subject up at Tuesday’s council meeting.
“We have finance issues we have to deal with too,” McGinley said. “I’d like to see the whole gamut of options and make good choices.”
He said he knew Moules’ family “very well” and was devastated. All council members expressed sadness over the deaths.
“I don’t want to ever see something like this happen to another person,” McGinley said. “I’d have trouble living with myself if I had the opportunity to do something and didn’t.”
His council colleague, Eileen Sorokas, said she supports a full review of the current prison facility and operations but does not believe the county can afford a new prison at this time.
“You can’t up the taxes so high that people can’t afford to live here,” Sorokas said, noting around $26 million of the county’s $130 million general fund operating budget is spent on debt repayments. “We don’t have a money tree outside.”
Under current county tax rates, the owner of property assessed at $100,000 pays $575 in county taxes.
Councilwoman Jane Walsh Waitkus said she understands the push for a new prison because the current facility is five stories and full of nooks and crannies, making it more costly to staff and more difficult to keep secure.
“I have an open mind and look forward to the discussion, but the big concern of mine is the additional burden to taxpayers in Luzerne County,” Walsh Waitkus said.
Council Chairwoman Linda McClosky Houck said the council has allocated capital funds for prior prison repairs requested by the administration and must continue addressing needs.
The need for a new prison was discussed years before the county’s 2012 switch to a customized home rule government, she said.
“I think we are long overdue for a better facility that will be more manageable and speak to the safety of both the inmates and people who work there,” she said. “It looks very bleak financially, but we have to say how can we make this happen instead of making this something optional.”
A new prison with a more modern design may reduce staffing requirements and result in other savings that offset the construction costs, McClosky Houck said.
At $34.1 million a year, the prison system is the largest single department expense in the county’s budget.
“Instead of spending more to staff an unsafe facility, maybe we can build a facility that will save us on manpower and also save lives,” she said.
Councilman Rick Williams, who has pushed to revive discussions about a new prison in the past, said he’d like a comprehensive comparison of the operational savings of a modern prison and the costs of building a new facility.
“If the savings exceed the cost, I don’t see any reason to wait,” Williams said.
Prior county officials spent around $1.3 million years ago designing a new prison that never materialized. An inmate population decrease and challenges in borrowing up to $100 million for construction prompted officials to scrap the idea.
But the prison has been at or above its 505-inmate capacity in recent years, with a population of 513 as of Wednesday.
Williams said it was “almost unethical” that the county spent more than $1 million on a design without a site secured.
Councilman Stephen A. Urban, who did not support the 2006 vote to design a new prison when he was a commissioner under the prior government system, said he doesn’t believe the county should take on additional debt.
He views a lack of public information on prison operations as the main safety concern.
The move to home rule eliminated a prior structure in which a prison board oversaw the facility. County commissioners, the district attorney, county controller, sheriff and a judge or judicial representative sat on the board and met at least once a month to publicly discuss staffing, safety concerns and fiscal issues.
The board released monthly reports detailing infractions committed by inmates and inmate population counts.
“Let’s look at what the real issues are in this tragic incident before we jump on this claim that we need a new jail. Let’s fix the issues that need to be fixed,” Urban said.
Pedri said Wednesday that as part of his belief in transparency, he will review monthly prison reports that were publicly released when the prison board was in operation so they can be generated again.
Councilwoman Kathy Dobash said she was “taken aback” when Pedri raised the issue of a new prison at the news briefing on Monday’s deaths, saying that issue should be handled separately.
“I was skeptical that he used this tragedy to promote building of a new prison. I think it was an inappropriate and reactive statement, and I didn’t appreciate that knowing our financial condition,” Dobash said. “There’s no money to fund such a project.”
Councilman Harry Haas said prison safety is “paramount,” but he does not want to put more burden on taxpayers.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.