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Jail plan splits sheriff, Chester County leaders

Sheriff Robby Benson shows where upgrades are needed at the Chester County Detention Center during a tour of the building Tuesday. Below left, a large uncovered hole in the ceiling mars one hallway. Below right, a hallway floor was dug out for repairs but remains unfinished.
Sheriff Robby Benson shows where upgrades are needed at the Chester County Detention Center during a tour of the building Tuesday. Below left, a large uncovered hole in the ceiling mars one hallway. Below right, a hallway floor was dug out for repairs but remains unfinished.

CHESTER -- Sheriff Robby Benson said Chester County leaders' plan to expand the Dawson Drive jail won't save the facility from being closed by state officials.

While he agrees with the County Council's idea of increasing the sales tax by a penny to pay for a jail, Benson said the money should be used to build another facility, not renovate the current one.

"We've been telling them for years that we need a new facility," Benson said. "You can't do it (expand the current facility)."

At issue is a plan to improve the jail that county leaders revealed during Monday night's council meeting. They hope to place a 1-cent sales tax proposal on the November ballot, with the money covering upgrades to the county jail.

Last week, the state fire marshal's office sent a letter to County Supervisor Carlisle Roddey telling him that the county has until December 2009 to bring its jail in compliance with state regulations or have it shut down. The letter actually extends a deadline that originally was set for August 2009.

If the jail closes, the county will be forced to send its pre-trial inmates to other facilities, some as far as 100 miles away.

And the county will foot that bill.

Benson and county leaders agree the county can't afford to be without a jail. But they have different methods of solving the problem.

The County Council unanimously voted Monday night to bring back the architect who had previously designed some additions for the jail. Roddey said he has scheduled meetings with both the architect and the state Department of Corrections.

The county's plan, he said, isn't far enough along for anyone to snub.

"How does he know it can't work?" Roddey asked, referring to Benson. "How do I know it can work? We've got to wait till we get everything together. You just can't go, arbitrarily, off the bat, saying, 'Oh, it's not gonna work.'"

Benson disagrees. The only way to have a jail that's up to code, he said, is to build another one.

The current facility has gaping holes in the ceiling and lacks a mandatory sprinkler system. The sewer and electrical work needs to be upgraded, Benson said. Because the jail doesn't have enough filing space, the jail administrator created a makeshift records room in the trailer of an old 18-wheeler behind the sheriff's office.

If the county is to grow, Benson said, a new facility is a must.

"Twenty million (dollars) seems like a lot," Benson said. "(But) we need to look at building a facility for 20, 30 years. ... There's no way around it."

A new jail was an option just a few years ago under the leadership of then-County Manager Avery Frick, Benson said.

A letter to the state fire marshal signed by Frick and dated July 31, 2006, states that the jail is outdated, and the county will either use the building for another purpose or demolish it.

The letter states that the County Council's intent was to begin the process of building a jail in 2006.

Because of the plan outlined in Frick's letter, the county was granted three years to comply with safety regulations. But the situation hasn't changed.

"We're kind of under the gun right now," Benson said. "You can't come back and put a Band-Aid on an old facility and try to add on to it and say, 'That'll pass.'"

Roddey countered that a new jail isn't an option.

"He wants filet mignon, and we've got a hamburger budget," he said of Benson. "We can't afford a new jail. We can make that jail down there like new. That jail, it's still in too good of shape to discard it and throw it away."

He said the sales tax increase will bring in more than $2 million each year for seven years if it passes.

Although he estimated Monday that the project will cost at least $6 million, he said Tuesday that figure was simply a guess and he'd have to wait on more exact numbers as the project develops.

Longtime problem

The jail's problems long have plagued the county.

In 1996, the county approved a $3 million bond to build a new law enforcement center, but estimates for the new building as it was designed were too expensive to proceed. But most of that money was used to pay for a redesign of a block behind the County Courthouse and the revamping of the War Memorial Building.

Overcrowding and understaffing prompted the state Department of Corrections to threaten to shut down the detention center in 2001.

To appease state officials, the county built a 7,100-square-foot prison camp for inmates who already have been sentenced.

The prison camp relieved the crowding. But the other part of the jail -- the portion of the facility that was built in 1974 and holds inmates who have not been sentenced -- continues to struggle. Benson said the facility has been failing state inspections for about 17 years.

A staff of 33 people serves the 150-bed detention center. Tuesday's headcount showed 57 people in the pre-trial area and 48 in the prison camp.

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