Gary against privatizing new jail Decision marks change in course for administration

50 union jobs preserved

Executive questions projected savings from proposed move

March 14, 1996|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

Sacrificing some cost savings for control, County Executive John G. Gary has decided against allowing a private company to operate the Glen Burnie detention center when it opens in fall 1997.

The decision, announced yesterday by Mr. Gary, signals a change of plans for a Republican administration that has looked to private enterprise to run its economic development program, a housing agency and, perhaps, its public golf course.

It also softens Mr. Gary's anti-labor image by preserving 50 union jobs, at least temporarily. The administration plans to review its decision a year after the minimum-security jail opens, but officials acknowledge that it is politically difficult to privatize a public agency.

"I have two standards that have to be met before we do any privatization," said Diane R. Evans, the Arnold Republican who chairs the County Council. "Can they provide a better service and save us money? Right now we don't know."

Mr. Gary said he always expected the 400-bed detention center HTC on Ordnance Road, which he endorsed during his 1994 campaign, to be run by a private corporation. Two firms bid on the right to operate what will be a $29.7 million complex designed to relieve crowding at the 30-year-old jail on Jennifer Road.

Only one company, Corrections Corp. of America. (CCA), bid below the county's estimated cost. The Nashville company submitted a proposal to operate the Glen Burnie jail for $700,000 less over five years than county administrators expect to spend running it, an 8.8 percent savings.

But reports by two consultants did not determine whether the county would save enough money with private operators to justify sacrificing control of a politically sensitive public program.

Mr. Gary said he had expected to save 15 percent of county costs by privatizing the jail. Privatization of the jail would have been a first in the state.

"Clearly, the numbers have not supported that," he said.

Last year, Mr. Gary and top aides toured two privately run jails in Texas. One was operated by CCA, described by one county official as the "New York Yankees" of incarceration companies for its stature in the field.

But practical and political considerations cooled Mr. Gary's enthusiasm.

Accused in recent weeks of bullying county employees with his no-raise policy, Mr. Gary said the thought of dismissing 50 detention officers with privatization "weighed heavily on [his] mind."

His decision will actually add 82 jobs to a county payroll that the administration has described as severely strained by salary and benefits. Personnel costs account for 75 percent of the county's $733 million operating budget.

The annual budget of the county's Department of Detention Facilities is expected to climb almost 28 percent when the jail opens, from $14.1 million to $18 million. Staff and inmates will be shifted from the Jennifer Road site to the Glen Burnie jail.

"This is not something we want to build," said Mr. Gary, referring to a project that has become the symbol of the county's north-south tensions. "This is something we have to build."

Mr. Gary's decision comes after a five-year fight over the North County jail a battle of conflicting cost estimates, consultant reports and regional politics.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening has notified the administration he has earmarked $15 million in this year's state budget for construction of the jail, which is scheduled to begin early this summer.

But Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, a Brooklyn Park Democrat who has fought the jail since its inception, still questions Mr. Gary's operating-cost estimates. He cited a January 1990 consultant's report that projected annual jail operating expenses of $21 million. That report outlined costs associated with a 30-percent larger complex, including a maximum-security component.

"My argument has always been that we don't know how much it's going to cost," Mr. Jimeno said.

Pub Date: 3/14/96

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