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Rein in jail authority

February 11, 1997

West Virginia's Regional Jail Authority decided this week that it's a little bit short of the cash it needs to complete its current construction program. About $68 million short, to be exact, and if the legislature agrees to up the amount this group can borrow without asking some tough questions, taxpayers should raise Cain about it.

The authority has already received the okay to borrow $80 million, but deputy director Frank Shumaker told a legislative oversight committee that it needed the okay for another $20 million.

And why was that? Because, Shumaker told lawmakers at a Monday meeting, the cost of projects the legislature approved last year has soared. In some cases, the estimates have doubled. For example, the proposed cost for the Eastern Regional Jail in Berkeley County has jumped from $7.8 million to $13 million. But, he said, another $20 million would get the job done.

That estimate was good for about an hour, when the jail authority met again and said that even with the $20 million in extra borrowing power, the projects would still be $47.7 million short of the funding needed to complete them. As of Monday, the authority's members were undecided about how to present their case to the legislature.

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Let us make a suggestion: Before the authority does any more borrowing, the legislative oversight committee should call in the engineers and architects who drew up the plans which convinced the legislature to approve the project list in 1996. Legislators need to know what has changed, because with low inflation and a state full of contractors hungry for construction projects, costs shouldn't double in a year's time.

Frankly, we've been skeptical of the authority's ability to fulfill its mission since March 1995, when its staff announced that the existing regional jail - built by the authority -in Berkeley County was obsolete after only six years! This group needs close scrutiny, so someone can make sure the next project they approve lasts longer than the average automobile.

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