By Justin Strawser

SUNBURY - Northumberland County Commissioner Chairman Vinny Clausi said it's time to consider construction of a new county prison rather than maintaining the old one that is "too old and falling apart."

"We have a major problem. We must do something to correct it," Clausi said during a meeting of the commissioners Tuesday.

He said he was not at liberty to disclose the details that led to his announcement, but he warned fellow commissioners and other officials present that he fears the county will be subjected to millions of dollars worth of lawsuits. And, if a federal judge stepped in and closed the prison, it would cost the county more than $7 million a year to transport inmates to other facilities, he said.

"It's time to take the bull by the horns and move forward," he said during a brief discussion.

It was less than a year ago that the county settled a federal lawsuit with the Lewisburg Prison Project, a nonprofit inmate advocacy group, on behalf of inmates who complained of inadequate health care and unsafe housing conditions. Earlier this month, a $1.6 million federal lawsuit was filed by eight inmates against administrators and correctional officers claiming inhumane conditions, but also racial discrimination, retaliation and cruel and unusual punishment.

Commissioner Stephen Bridy said he has been in contact with the Army Corps of Engineers to assist with design plans, and noted the county needs to figure out a way for the project to help pay for itself over time.

Clausi suggested they could contact the federal government and offer to house undocumented immigrants at a fee, then build the prison large enough to accommodate those extra inmates. That would allow the prison to be self-sustaining, he said.

Commissioner Richard Shoch agreed with making a move despite budget issues, and said it might save the county money in the long run.

However, he said, "We should reach out to our neighboring counties (to build a regional prison) as a last-ditch effort."

Clausi said former commissioner boards have attempted to partner with neighboring counties, but all proposals in the past failed to move forward.

"We have to move fast, or we'll get into more million-dollar lawsuits," he said.

No votes were taken in relation to the prison.

911 center proposals

The commissioners unanimously authorized advertising for requests for proposals for the proposed 911 center project as requested by the Department of Public Safety.

The 2012 budget includes $10 million for a capital improvement project involving federal-mandated upgrades to the county 911 communications center that must be completed by Dec. 31, 2013.

The original motion was to ask for two proposals, but Shoch requested and Bridy and Clausi agreed to not limit the number so the county can keep its options open.

Mentioned as part of the discussion is the fact that the county currently pays Union County to provide 911 services to the northern panhandle, and the county may be updating its 911 services to include new radio towers in that part area.

Shoch said he wanted to seek additional proposals to see it would make more sense to continue the partnership with Union County or build their own radio towers.

"We don't want to duplicate the efforts or the costs," Shoch said.

Caseworker exodus

In other business, the county directed Human Resource Director Joseph Picarelli to enter into a dialogue with the union representing social service employees to develop a proposal to reduce caseworker turnover. Clausi said the exodus of underpaid employees is costing the county nearly $180,000 a year in training new employees.