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Schuylkill discusses regional prison

Published July 12. 2018 12:57PM

Schuylkill County commissioners have been talking with their counterparts in neighboring Berks County about a joint solution to their aging and overcrowded prisons.

The news surfaced Wednesday at a Schuylkill Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Pottsville.

Creating a regional prison is “just one option” each county is considering, said Schuylkill Commissioners’ Chairman George F. Halcovage Jr.

After the state demanded it control overcrowding, Schuylkill has been sending its overflow inmates to other county prisons in Bern Township, Berks County, as well as Centre, Columbia and other counties at a cost of $65-$70 per inmate per day. That doesn’t include transportation and overtime costs.

Last year, it cost the county $1.3 million to house inmates elsewhere. The price tag as of June this year was $481,518.

That has officials scrambling for a long-term solution. It would cost between $70 million and $80 million to build a new prison, Halcovage said.

He and Commissioner Gary J. Hess discussed the matter with Berks County commissioners at a public meeting in March.

“We were invited down by Berks County commissioners. They were talking about updating their jail, and in conversation, the question came up, ‘Is there any way we can work together?’ ” Halcovage said after the luncheon.

The distance is a factor, he said.

“However, we owe it to the taxpayers to look at every option we have. Whether it’s looking a new facility, we have to be as cost efficient as possible,” Halcovage said.

The county is also studying creating a pre-release center as a long-term solution.

The luncheon marked the midpoint in the chamber’s 100th anniversary.

Sponsored by the law firm of Marshall, Bohorad, Thornburg, Price & Campion, the event, held at The Lodge at Sharp Mountain, Pottsville, drew dozens of business people.

Chamber president and CEO Robert S. Carl Jr. facilitated the luncheon, asking Commissioners Halcovage, Hess and Frank J. Staudenmeier to update those attending on a range of topics, including the county budget, a $5 fee levied on vehicle registration to help fund road and bridge repairs, a proposed $15 fee on deed transfers to help fight blight, education, job growth and prison overcrowding.

Staudenmeier spoke about the difficulty of meeting unfunded federal and state mandates without hurting taxpayers.

The only way to fund the county’s general fund, which is about $68 million excluding federal and state money, is through either taxes or fees. While it’s a hard choice to impose either, expenses such as health care and wages continue to rise, he said.

Hess said the county manages its money well, making sure it has enough in reserved funds to meet unexpected expenses.

All three commissioners also spoke of the importance of government and business working together to make sure young people have the education they need to succeed, and that the county offers the education that future employers need for their employees to have.

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