WILKES-BARRE — Luzerne County Manager Robert Lawton wants to explore the feasibility of constructing a new prison, saying the expense might be covered by the resulting savings on staff and maintenance costs.
Lawton suggested the idea as part of his first “state of the county” report during Tuesday's council meeting. A prior county administration spent around $1.3 million a few years ago designing a new prison that never materialized.
An inmate population decrease and challenges borrowing up to $100 million to fund a new prison prompted officials to scrap the idea. Lawton said an analysis must be done, but he said the county is limited in its ability to reduce the $29 million spent on the prison system with the inefficient design of the five-story structure on Water Street in Wilkes-Barre, which includes a building section more than a century old.
A new prison should be located near the criminal court system because of prison transport to court proceedings, he said. It might make sense to relocate the prison and criminal court together somewhere else and keep the courthouse for civil court and other county offices, he said.
That change could free up space to remove all county offices and courtrooms from the county-owned Penn Place building on Pennsylvania Avenue in downtown Wilkes-Barre, he said. The county could then try to sell Penn Place to return it to the tax rolls, he said.
“I think these are questions that are worth looking at,” Lawton said.
County Councilman Stephen A. Urban, a prior commissioner, told Lawton the county is hampered in its ability to cut prison staff — even with a new facility — because of a minimum staffing requirement in the prison union contract. This provision requires the county to base the number of corrections officers on the prison population, Urban said. The prison union contract expires the end of this year.
Urban said past commissioners wasted money designing a new facility that would have been too large. He also said the county has no power to borrow funds to build a prison. He predicted the question of whether to pursue a new prison will be a key issue in this year's race for five council seats.
“If it won't reduce corrections costs, it's dead,” Lawton said.
Selling unused county-owned property was another goal cited during Lawton's presentation. He singled out the former Valley Crest Nursing Home in Plains Township and former county juvenile detention center on River Street in Wilkes-Barre as examples.
Lawton said this year's $122.25 million general fund operating budget reduced spending while absorbing increased costs and accurately funding expenses.
The state of the county is “improving,” he said, emphasizing many changes are still in the works under the new home rule government.
County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis spent nearly two hours presenting and answering questions about her home rule-mandated report on 2012. Salavantis said many of her staffers work additional hours without compensation because of rising caseloads.
She described her office as a “triage unit.” The county is considered a “little Philadelphia” with its crime rates, she said.
The office regularly shares information with law enforcement officials in New York City and Philadelphia because they are investigating the same people, she said, citing the pure heroin available locally as one of the driving factors of crime and drug addiction.
The number of new adult cases handled by her office increased from 3,903 in 2011 to 4,368 last year, she said. The office had 390 juvenile cases in 2011 and 450 in 2012, which includes those handled by volunteer youth aid panels who try to provide a second chance to first-time, nonviolent offenders, she said.
District Attorney's Office cases of Internet crimes against children also increased from 52 in 2011 to 87 in 2012, she said.
The office's child advocacy center, which brings multiple investigatory bodies together so young abuse victims are only interviewed once, handled 455 cases last year, compared to 320 in 2011, she said.
The office prosecuted 228 of these cases last year, she said. Salavantis said her office has 22 assistant district attorneys, compared to 24 assistant attorneys employed by the public defender's office.
She also said her juvenile unit consists of two attorneys and two state-mandated victim coordinators, though one of the coordinators is out on worker's compensation.
In comparison, the public defender's juvenile unit, which handles fewer cases, has three attorneys, two social workers, one investigator and one secretary, she said.
Councilman Rick Morelli described the presentation as “eye-opening.”
Councilwoman Elaine Maddon Curry, who attended the meeting via speaker phone, questioned Salavantis' continued employment of a detective whose salary was funded by an expired grant.
Lawton said the district attorney's budget funded nine detective positions, not 10, which means she will face a budget shortfall.
Councilman Edward Brominski also challenged the district attorney's decision last year to shift funds allocated for one purpose to cover another expense. Brominski said she violated a home rule charter requirement to notify council and the controller of such transfers.