Opinion

Prison cost overruns

With the rush to complete the new York County prison, some cost overruns were to be expected. Nonetheless, $193,000 in unforeseen expenses is real money.

County officials welcomed the recent opening of the new 50,000-square-foot prison in York. It is the first and largest of a series of projects that will provide more holding space for prisoners.

The new prison will alleviate overcrowding at the county detention center, commonly called the jail, which Sheriff Bruce Bryant describes as "a lawsuit waiting to happen." The jail has 319 beds, but in August a daily average of 461 inmates were housed there, many of them sleeping on cots or mattresses on the floor.

Inmates who have been sentenced were moved last month from the jail to the new prison, which has 256 beds. Pre-trial inmates will remain at the jail, which eventually will be renovated and expanded to 553 beds.

With significant overcrowding at the jail, the county was under the gun to build the new prison. The job was completed in a little more than a year at a cost of $7.9 million, but that included $193,000 in additional costs.

Although county officials conceded that this was a rush job, county staff and the architect handling the project were blamed for costly oversights during construction. Some council members, Curwood Chappell in particular, were upset at being asked for $75,000 in November to cover last-minute upgrades.

"I've fired people for making a $25 mistake, much less a $75,000 mistake," Chappell said during a council meeting.

But the overruns demand some perspective. For one thing, they represent only about 3 percent of the overall cost. Many homeowners would be happy if their home-improvement projects came in that close to budget.

In addition, about $118,000 -- or more than 60 percent of the added expense -- was for cleanup of landfill trash discovered on the site when workers were digging the prison's foundation. That problem would have been hard to foresee before breaking ground.

Granted, some changes were details that county engineers overlooked, such as cabling for a data network and a telephone system. Engineers had mistakenly believed those details were covered in the contract; instead, they cost an extra $31,000.

Again, though, the county was under significant pressure to complete this project quickly. Councilman Rick Lee noted that projects of this size often take more than a year just to produce a design.

We're grateful the much-needed new prison was completed in little more than a year, and that inmates now can be properly accommodated. If Bryant is correct that the overcrowding situation could have spawned a lawsuit, maybe the county saved money -- even with the overruns -- by avoiding one.

IN SUMMARY

While $193,000 might be a lot of money, it is only 3 percent of total project cost.

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