During a lengthy finance committee hearing yesterday, Northampton County council members were supposed to hear details of a $30 million bond for a new parking deck, among other things. But county exec John Stoffa, at the last minute, pulled that item. He told council members there's a more pressing problem - the prison.
Northampton County's prison, built in 1871, has "outlived its usefulness," according to consultants from Highland Associates. It's a "problem waiting to happen." Six unpleasant and expensive options were presented for bigger prisoner warehouse, one that can pack in around 1,488 inmates. The county could simply abandon the site and start out fresh somewhere else. $130 to 136 million. Cha ching! It could rip down the old prison and build a seven story monstrosity that Eastonians are sure to love. $128 to $132 million. Cha ching. And, of course, it could split operations up and still spend gobs of money.
As consultants laid out the proposals, exasperated Finance Chair Ron Angle questioned where we could build a new prison or even have a split operation. "The reality here is, who the hell wants a new prison?"
To make matter worse, John Stoffa informed Angle's committee that once a new judge is legislated, the brand new courthouse will be full.
Stoffa suggested that all administration offices should be concentrated at Gracedale, which is the geographical center of the county. The Bechtel and Governor Wolf buildings would be sold and the vacated government center would be left for the courts. That would leave more room for both the judges and the people they send to jail. It might even eliminate the need for a $30 million parking lot. It might even reduce the cost of a proposed prison expansion.
Whether Stoffa is right or wrong, it's clear the county is suffering from a lack of long-range planning. In 2001, when the first prison expansion was proposed, everyone knew it would be full the moment it was built. It was a $29 million band aid.
Instead of planning how to embarrass Stoffa, council members should help him plan the county's long range needs.
It's called governing. What they've been doing is called politics.