Bellows Falls detention center proposal raises concerns

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BELLOWS FALLS>> During a presentation about the Liberty Mill Justice Center, Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark snapped at the audience after someone snickered about constitutional rights for detainees.

"I have spent my entire life protecting the rights of people, I'm a strong supporter of both our U.S. and our Vermont constitution, and if you don't like it, you can get our Congress to change our Constitution," said Clark. "But I will support everybody's rights, whether they have been charged with a crime or not."

The Liberty Mill Justice Center, proposed by Clark, is a multi-million-dollar criminal detainee/resource facility that would be located at the village's former Liberty Mill, also known as the Chemco building. The space will hold 155 beds — 120 secured for either federal or state male detainees, 20 for female detainees at either the state or federal level and 35 for those that are transitioning out or that are eligible for the electronic monitoring program. The two-story building would be "building secure" rather than "site secure," which means no barbed fencing, guard tower, floodlights or large open spaces surrounding the building. Instead, security would be held within all or a portion of the building.

The center will function as a business under operation of the sheriff's office, which will also be responsible for arranging Clark's proposed educational and human services such as Community College of Vermont, Health Care & Rehabilitation Services of Vermont, Vermont Technical College and more. Clark says that such services don't exist within current detainee systems, and believes that this is the new and needed approach to justice.

Clark not only caught the audiences off guard when he stated his stance on the Constitution, but also when he answered Westminster resident Katie Dearborn's question and then the question of local resident Deborah Wright.

"If this community as a whole is really steadfast on not supporting this justice center as the way its proposed, are you still moving forward with it?" asked Dearborn. "Do you strongly feel that if it's structured in a way that we absolutely will benefit from it, whether we think we're going to or not?

The audience looked to Clark for a definitive answer as he had not provided one to the audience at the November joint Bellows Falls Trustees and Rockingham Selectboard meeting.

"No I would not move forward with it." Clark said. He noted that the plan is still in the preliminary stages, but believes that when the full proposal is presented to the community regarding the services, he believes there will be less opposition.

Later in the evening, Wright was called on to ask a question, which was a follow-up to Dearborn's question. Wright noted that on the project website, construction is to begin in 2016.

"Will you delay your project until the voters have an opportunity to speak on this matter?" asked Wright.

With no hesitation and no further explanation, Clark said, "No."

The crowed mumbled and a man in the audience yelled out, "democratic process? Constitution, How do you say no?"

"Because for me to delay the project, means increased costs," said Clark

Some members of the audience shook their heads or scoffed.

"Let me finish, at this point we're continuing to seek funding, and for me to delay the project, I may not want to use this property, but there are other properties in the area that potentially would meet the need. So for you to say 'just stop doing what you're doing,' runs the risk of putting it further and further out with increased costs," said Clark. He would not mention what other properties that he is looking at because he said it may hurt his negotiating position.

Another topic of interest at the meeting was driving time and distance from the detainee center to any of the four Vermont court houses. Another man in the audience argued that Londonderry would serve as a more central location to these court houses, where the detainees would eventually need to face trial.

Others wanted to know more specifics about the costs and economic benefits to the towns. Clark said that there will be a tax revenue increase over nearly $200,000 for the community and creation of jobs which will bring in millions of dollars.

"How that money is used by the community will be up to the community and by the community,"said Clark.

A member of the audience suggested that $200,000 seemed low for this facility and asked if they could know how those numbers were calculated. Francis "Dutch" Walsh, the director of the Bellows Falls Area Development Corporation, provided some of those estimates that were based on the $22-million facility that was calculated based on the town tax rate, library, social services and local agreements, which was a subtotal of $197,000. The non-residential was an additional $62,000; the village of Bellows Falls taxes $147,000; and the grand total based on the construction cost was $240,490.

"We're not going to get $240,490, because the assessment will probably be much less than $23 million," said Walsh.

Others in the audience argued that Clark's proposal would not bring in the numbers he was stating because they feel that more people are apt to move out if detainees move into their town at the Liberty Mill Justice Center.

Clark also explained the some of the costs. He said that planning and development is $500,000, which would come through a $250,000 USDA grant matched by DEW Construction Corporation. Approximately $4 million will come from the U.S. Marshalls for construction and development, between $8 to $10 million will come through New Market Tax Credit Program, approximately $2.5 million will come from the Historic Tax Credit Program and the remaining funds, approximately $8 million, would be a mortgage held by the Windham County Sheriff's Office.

Clark added that the long-term funding will come from a 15 to 20 year agreement with the U.S. Marshalls for the detention center for the detainees at an adjusted rate of per year, per bed cost.

There was also a petition circling around the event that was created by a Rockingham resident, Suzanne Groenewold, that would give Rockingham voters a chance to demonstrate their opposition to the center. She also noted that there was a concert at one of the local middle schools, and a basketball game at one of the Bellows Fall Union High School, which she thought might have had an impact on the turn-out, or lack thereof at the forum.

One man in the audience acknowledged all the positive aspects of the project that Clark had mentioned, but challenged him if he had investigated any negative impacts.

"Have you thought of any negative impacts in the minus column, that might be experienced by our town. I know you've got a lot of positive/feel-good vibes about this, but has anything seemed like it might be problematic for us?"

"Not at this point, no," said Clark. Some members of the audience laughed or made inaudible comments among one another.

Clark also noted that the budget is in the progress right now, and once it is complete, it will be shared with the community. There were numerous other topics covered at the meeting and Clark plans to continue to address these at future forums.


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