Privatizing Berks jail an option 'too tempting to ignore'

County considering renovations, new construction

READING, Pa. - The future of the Berks County Jail was a topic of discussion by the county commissioners at their weekly meeting on Thursday.

Commissioner Mark C. Scott voiced his concern about the condition of the jail in Bern Township and the cost needed to update and run the facility. 

"The jail line item consumes one of the greatest portions of the county tax revenues," Scott said, adding that the traditional approach is expensive and time-consuming.

Scott suggested the board consider an alternative: privatizing the jail. He cited the possible advantages as cost savings, economies of scale, and improved competency in building and operating the jail.

"While I have not ruled out a government-constructed and -run jail, I think potential savings here are such that it's just too tempting to ignore," Scott said. "It's part of our due diligence that we explore all the alternatives."

Commissioner Christian Y. Leinbach said that a long-term plan for the jail is his number one goal for 2017, and it is one of the biggest capital projects the board of commissioners has ever faced.

"I am not willing to accept that a new jail built by the county is the only option," Leinbach said. "The one option that I don't believe is realistic is to indefinitely ignore the real conditions of the existing jail."

"I am open to hearing all of the options," Commissioner Kevin S. Barnhardt said, although he added that there are huge roadblocks to overcome with the privatization of the jail.

The oldest portion of the jail was built in 1933, with an expansion done in 1993.

The county has hired a Philadelphia-based architectural and engineering firm to analyze the cost of renovation vs. new construction.

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