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York County officials frustrated with judges over office space veto

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch

York County officials are trying to save money by renovating space at York County Prison into a new office for a district judge, but county leaders disagree about how much sway the judge should have in the decision.

"I have a tremendous amount of respect for all of the bench and everybody, but we’re viewing it through the lens of what is best for the prison, not ‘Are we OK with this spot as our new office,'" said York County District Attorney Dave Sunday at a Wednesday meeting of the York County Prison Board.

District Judge Barry Bloss Jr. is the one whose office would move to the prison. 

Bloss and President Judge Joseph C. Adams nixed a proposal last year to renovate a vacant cell block at the prison and convert the space into Bloss' office.

Adams said Friday he had been willing to consider the cell block plan because it was his understanding the county would save a substantial amount of money by renovating an existing space, as opposed to paying for a new building.

But when the feasibility study came back with an estimate of $2.1 million, Adams said, he was surprised the cost was so high.

Adams also said he would have been OK with the cell block plan if it included a separate parking lot for the district judge's office, to better differentiate between the court and the prison, but the county learned that wasn't feasible.

"Courts are supposed to be independent," Adams said. "They're not supposed to be viewed as either being 'pro police' or that we’re looking to incarcerate people."

York County Prison in Springettsbury Township, Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016.

The new proposal would put the district judge's office in the administrative office portion of the prison's female work release building, which is not attached to the main prison building.

"We specifically asked them (Bloss and Adams) if they had any issues with work release being there," York County Commissioner Julie Wheeler said at the prison board meeting. "They said 'no.'"

The prison board voted Wednesday to give the board of commissioners the OK to move ahead with a new feasibility study to determine the projected costs to renovate the work release building, how long it would take and whether the space would be a good fit for the needs of the district judge.

But not everyone was thrilled with the prospect of starting over with a new study.

More:York County Prison could be new home for Springetts district judge office

More:York County judges oppose moving Springetts district judge office to prison

York County Commissioner Ron Smith said it was his understanding that the vacant cell block would have been the best place, on the prison property, for the district judge's office based on the input of Warden Clair Doll and the county's facilities managers.

"The problem you have is, you have an MDJ (magisterial district judge) who won’t do that, whose office manager has said they will quit if it’s moved to that portion of the prison ... and the president judge is siding with the MDJ," Smith said.

Bloss could not be reached for comment.

If the district judge office were to move into the female work release building, the prison would need to rearrange the work release administrative staff and renovate a portion of the prison garage, Doll said,  and the facility would lose some of its storage space.

The prison would not be negatively affected by the changes, the warden said.

Smith said he feared that all the renovations needed to implement this new proposal would cost significantly more than the $2.1 million estimate in the first feasibility study.

A new study would probably cost about $8,000 to $10,000, said York County facilities manager Scott Cassel.

"It’ll tell us what our options are, what things cost," said York County Commissioner Doug Hoke about the new study. "This is what our board is here for, to make sure that we do the right thing for the prison."

Bloss' office is presently at the Pleasant Acres annex building in Springettsbury Township, where several other county offices used to be located.

The county commissioners voted to sell the annex, along with Pleasant Acres nursing home, in 2018 to Premier Healthcare Management.

The county, which bought a new building on Pleasant Valley Road to replace the annex, has until the end of 2020 to move its offices out, but moving the district judge office to the new building would be too expensive because the sewer line would have to be extended, county officials have said.

The county negotiated a one-year extension of the lease, Wheeler said Wednesday, meaning the district judge's office can remain at the annex until the end of 2021 if necessary.

More:Moving district judge office to York County Prison would cost $2.1 million

More:Work to begin soon on new York County Coroner's office