Drunken-driver prison is put on hold again

March 13, 1994|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun Staff Writer

Like a nicely set table waiting for guests, Baltimore County's long-planned 100-bed prison for drunken drivers sits on indefinite hold in Owings Mills.

Delayed repeatedly by problems over location, renovation costs and operation, the treatment center is in limbo again.

Stephen K. Valle, a partner of Right Turn Inc., the private &L company that was the only bidder to operate the work-release center, is under consideration for a high-ranking post in the Clinton administration, according to Michael M. Gimbel, director of the county Office of Substance Abuse. Charles C. Powell, Right Turn's other partner, said he is uncertain how to proceed.

Renovation work for the center, in a building at Rosewood State Hospital Center, is finished.

The job for which Mr. Valle is being considered, reported to be within the federal Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration in Rockville, hinges on whether Nelba R. Chavez of San Francisco is approved to head the agency, Mr. Gimbel and Mr. Powell said.

Ms. Chavez said President Clinton has announced "an intent to nominate me" but that the nomination is not official. She said she could not comment on Mr. Valle's prospects for a job if she is nominated and confirmed by the Senate. She has not spoken to him, she said. Mr. Valle did not return phone calls for comment.

If the federal job comes through and Mr. Valle withdraws from Right Turn, Mr. Powell said he isn't sure he wants to bear the entire financial risk of the center's operations.

"We're kind of up in limbo," he said. "It's put me right in the . . . middle."

Mr. Powell said he and Mr. Valle have spent more than $60,000 on the venture. He said he arranged financing so that he could proceed alone if necessary but that he is worried about assuming the full risk.

That risk includes roughly $600,000 in start-up costs and $1.5 million in annual operating costs. Under the center plan, operating costs would be paid by the drunken drivers sentenced to the center.

The uncertainty frustrates county officials.

"We've done everything" to get the center open, said Mr. Gimbel. The contract has been approved by the County Council and the state Board of Public Works.

He said the irony in the delay is that Mr. Valle's experience in

drug and alcohol treatment, which the county seeks, also led to his consideration for the federal post.

Right Turn operates similar treatment centers in Massachusetts, where it is based, and in Iowa and Pennsylvania.

Because the county had only one bidder for the project, Mr. Gimbel is reluctant to start the process again.

The program would provide intensive 28-day inpatient therapy for drunken drivers. Most inmates would pay for treatment and a yearlong outpatient follow-up based on a sliding-fee scale related to income. Drivers who didn't pay could be required to serve a jail term.

Other counties have expressed interest in renting beds if Baltimore County judges don't fill them.

Mr. Gimbel said he is helping Mr. Powell seek new investors. He also is applying for grants to ease the financial risk by paying for some indigent drivers sentenced to the center.

How long the county and Mr. Powell can afford to wait is the question.

The delays have made moot one of the county's goals in opening the center: relieving crowding at the two Towson jail facilities.

A permanent 216-bed addition to the main Detention Center on Kenilworth Drive is to open in June or July, relieving the pressure there.

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