Cumberland County officials deny they improperly rushed into a deal that involves the jail in Bridgeton housing inmates from Gloucester County’s soon-to-be-shuttered correctional facility.
They also say the extra inmates, many of whom would be lodged in a part of the jail built in the 1940s, will cause no safety problems for either the inmates or the corrections officers who work in the facility.
The jail can handle the extra inmates, said Warden Robert Balicki, adding he would do nothing to cause safety problems for anyone serving time or working in the facility at Broad and Atlantic streets.
Cumberland County Freeholder Director William Whelan said the county plans to hire about 15 new corrections officers for the jail. Those hirings are recommended in a study that will be formally presented to the county in a few weeks, county Administrator Kenneth Mecouch said.
Freeholder Joseph Derella, whose duties include overseeing public safety issues, said he would oppose any plan to increase the county jail’s 550-inmate population limit.
Still, the plan drew angry responses from residents and county corrections officers attending Wednesday’s meeting of the Cumberland County Board of Chosen Freeholders. The freeholders voted 5-1 to approve the deal with Gloucester County. Gloucester County’s freeholders approved the plan 6-1 during their meeting Wednesday in Woodbury. Freeholders in Salem County, whose jail might also accept some Gloucester inmates, delayed taking final action on the proposal Wednesday.
Some Cumberland County residents are threatening petition drives in opposition to the plan.
“It’s going to create more crime, more drugs, more mental problems,” Upper Deerfield Township resident Eileen Clark said. “Is this what we want for our families here?”
Thomas Sheppard, a former Republican freeholder who lost a re-election bid in November, told the board it might be wise to consider a regional corrections approach with Gloucester and Salem counties.
County Republicans charge that the freeholder board — on which Democrats hold a 5-2 majority — is moving too fast on the agreement with Gloucester County. The issue, for which a final shared-services agreement with Gloucester is not yet completed, deserves more public scrutiny, they contend.
All five Democratic freeholders voted in favor of the plan Wednesday. Republican Samuel Fiocchi voted against the measure. The board’s other Republican — Carl Kirstein — could not attend the meeting but objected to the proposal in a statement issued Tuesday.
Whelan said the freeholders would hold what he called a “confirmation vote” during their regular meeting March 26, at which time Kirstein can formally comment on the inmate plan.
Whelan said the reason behind the agreement and the need to get it in place quickly revolves around county budgets.
Both Cumberland and Gloucester counties need to make the appropriate revenue adjustments in their budgets before sending the fiscal plans to the state for approval. Gloucester County is ahead of Cumberland in that process, he said.
Whelan said the inmate plan grew out of a meeting of South Jersey freeholders who were discussing ways to save money through shared-services agreements. The plan for Cumberland County to accept Gloucester’s inmates evolved only during the past few weeks, he said.
Under the agreement, Gloucester County will pay Cumberland $100 per day for each inmate housed in Cumberland’s jail. The figure increases by 2 percent annually.
Cumberland County’s jail can hold 550 inmates. The jail currently has about 440.
The agreement calls for Cumberland County to accept 100 to 350 inmates from Gloucester County. Cumberland officials said the agreement would, based on the housing of 100 inmates, raise $3.65 million annually. They said the county would net about $3 million after expenses related to housing the extra inmates. The $3 million would help offset county budget deficits, with this year’s deficit standing at about $12.5 million, they said.
Gloucester County officials estimate the agreement will save their taxpayers about $250 million over the next 25 years. Those savings include the laying off of more than a third of Gloucester County’s corrections officers.
Cumberland County officials said the formal shared-services agreement between Cumberland and Gloucester counties is “97 percent complete.” Final wording on issues such as transportation and hospitalization costs for the Gloucester County inmates is nearly complete, they said.
Cumberland Freeholder Carol Musso said Wednesday that while she voted in favor of the plan, it should provide for Cumberland County residents getting first preference on new jail jobs. Unions representing jail workers should also have input in the plan, she said.
Musso’s suggestions could “at some point” be added to the agreement, Mecouch said.
“But I’m not sure about that,” he said.
Contact Thomas Barlas: