Washington County is exploring the purchase of a hotel to house work-release prisoners and separate them from the regular jail population, Commissioner Diana Irey Vaughan told an audience listening to a virtual economic summit Friday morning.
While no potential locations have been targeted yet and the cost remains unknown, the infectious nature of the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need to purchase a separate facility to place inmates who regularly come and go from the Washington County jail, Irey Vaughan said.
She said the process is in the “exploratory stage,” but county officials are hopeful they will be able to use federal COVID-19 relief money to purchase a hotel and transform it into a facility that can accommodate overnight prisoners who are permitted to leave during the day to work.
The logistics of how the facility would operate, what security would be needed and the operating costs are still in the infancy stages. A consultant would likely be needed to consider the feasibility of the plan, although the county has not yet put out a request for proposal to hire one.
“It’s an idea we’re considering,” she said. “It’s one of the things we’re talking about.”
The topic was brought up during the “First Friday” virtual discussion on regional infrastructure and economic development investment organized by the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce. Irey Vaughan, along with fellow panelists Butler County Commissioner Leslie Osche and Indiana County Commissioner Sherene Hess, spoke about a variety of issues on what the region and individual counties need to do to bounce back from the pandemic.
The need to improve broadband access for rural areas was a topic that all three commissioners agreed is both important and problematic. As employees were sent home to work and students underwent remote learning over the past year, a chasm was created between those who could and couldn’t access reliable internet services.
“The pandemic laid bare that for day-to-day activities ... broadband connectivity is vital,” said Matt Smith, executive director of the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce.
Irey Vaughan said Washington County has spent about $300,000 out of $18 million in federal stimulus money trying to get poorly served areas better access.
“Broadband will continue to be a priority,” she said.
Finding providers willing to invest in the lines was one issue, while also encouraging people to sign up and pay for monthly internet subscriptions was difficult at times, she said. She recalled a recent conversation with state Rep. Pam Snyder, who has been an advocate for better internet service in rural areas of Greene County but has seen how providers don’t necessarily want to spend the money to run the lines, along with customers who don’t want to pay for the service.
“We realized in order to provide broadband in some communities, we must be prepared to invest a higher percentage because the cost benefit for that (internet provider) is not there,” Irey Vaughan.
Osche agreed that there she has seen similar problems in rural areas of Butler County.
“It’s one thing to get it there,” Osche said. “It’s another thing for people to pay for it and get it.”
That’s why regional collaborations and discussions between different county leaders – such as Friday’s virtual event – is important so important to make progress, Smith said.
“It’s really going to be the leaders on the ground. That’s why today is so critical to hear (from local leaders) about different priorities, not just from broadband, but from a whole host of issues,” Smith said. “The needs are different, but the needs are everywhere.”