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Schuylkill considers uses for $27M in relief funds

Schuylkill County will receive $27,415,708 from the American Rescue Recovery Plan Act.

“You’ve got to tie it back to COVID,” County Administrator Gary Bender said.

President Joe Biden signed the legislation March 11. Funds would be dispersed in two increments, the first this summer and the next in 2022.

Schuylkill County President Judge William E. Baldwin urged commissioners during the prison board meeting Wednesday to allocate money to “finally address the intermediate punishment facility,” adding he didn’t believe the county would get this opportunity again in the future. The facility would be for nonviolent offenders. Those with drug, alcohol or mental health concerns could obtain treatment at the center. The cost for such a facility was $5.2 million in 2018.

Commissioner George Halcovage Jr. said the county is waiting on guidance from the U.S. Treasury on appropriate use of the money.

“If it can happen, we want it to happen. It’s a long time coming,” Halcovage said.

Commissioner Gary Hess said such an opportunity should be considered.

“We are putting people in prison and we are not fixing the problem,” he said.

Commissioners’ Chairman Barron “Boots” Hetherington agreed it should be considered. Eliminating county debt might also be a possibility.

“The need for a facility is just going to increase,” Baldwin said.

He said the Schuylkill County Prison has a limited amount of space it can use.

Bender said an intermediate punishment facility would be a “qualifying project.”

He said the “overcrowding” at the prison makes social distancing difficult. The county sends inmates to Centre, Columbia and Northumberland counties. As of Wednesday, 15 inmates are housed in Centre County, seven in Columbia and four in Northumberland, Schuylkill County Prison Warden David Wapinsky said. Total prison population Wednesday was 247, with 194 males and 53 females.

“There are 13 triple cells currently in our prison,” Wapinsky said.

He said counties were not taking inmates on contract. Other reasons were also cited.

On average, the county spends $1.6 million to house prisoners elsewhere, Bender said.

Transporting prisoners to other counties also increases the workload and cost to the sheriff’s department, he said.

In addition to the county, all 67 municipalities and 12 school districts countywide will receive money, Bender said.