A rendering of the proposal for a new, eight-story Penobscot County Jail that would take the place of the former YMCA on Hammond Street. This view is looking up Hammond Street. Credit: Courtesy of WBRC Architects

Penobscot County commissioners will “take a pause in the process” of planning a new county jail after hearing criticism from the public about the proposal for an eight-story, 250-bed jail they introduced last week.

Chairman Peter Baldacci said Tuesday afternoon that commissioners would look at a possible redesign of the building after hearing criticism from the public about the height and size of the 116,879-square-foot standalone building, estimated to cost $65 to $70 million.

As part of the pause, county commissioners no longer plan to put a referendum question on the June ballot to ask voters to fund the new jail.

“We are looking at putting a referendum on the November ballot,” Baldacci said. “We didn’t want to barge ahead with something that does not have strong public support.”

Bangor residents and business owners last week criticized the design as “dominating the Bangor skyline” and not fitting into the nearby residential neighborhood.

Baldacci said commissioners would reconsider how much space was needed for programming to see if some height could be taken off the proposed building. He also said that future discussions about the building would be held in public and not in executive sessions as prior discussions have been.

Commissioners will not consider other sites for the facility, Baldacci said in a statement issued on behalf of the three county commissioners.

“It became clear that there are significant challenges to building in a downtown site, but it was felt that the current location is very beneficial to local law enforcement,” he said. “The jail has been in the downtown since Penobscot became a county in 1816.”

If the jail referendum had been placed on the June primary ballot, it would have been the only one in the state. Because of that, Penobscot County would have had to pay for the printing and distribution of ballots. By putting the question on the ballot in November, the county would be able to piggyback on expected statewide referendum and bond questions.

Commissioners had proposed building a 116,879-square-foot standalone building on the site of the former YMCA on Hammond Street once that building, which the county bought in 2017 for $825,000, is demolished.

At eight stories, the Penobscot County Corrections Center would be one of the tallest buildings in Bangor, excluding church spires. The Hollywood Casino on Main Street and the Camden National Bank building on Exchange Street are each 10 stories high.

Last week, commissioners presented their latest plan for a larger jail to the Bangor City Council and sought a change in the city’s zoning ordinance due to the proposed building’s height and size. Baldacci said Tuesday that the request would be withdrawn.

A jail advisory committee worked for more than two years to develop a recommendation to commissioners on ways to alleviate overcrowding at the current jail reduce the need for the county to board inmates out to other county jails and to increase space for programming and medical care. The current jail is licensed for 157 inmates, and the county’s jail population has regularly exceeded that number.

Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton said Tuesday that he supports the commissioners’ decision and looks forward to the ongoing discussions.

“We will continue to work within the criminal justice system in order to reduce the population and make sure the facility is operated in a safe and humane way,” he said. “Immediately, this does mean continuing the boarding of inmates out to other facilities. As mentioned, several times, I am very concerned about the impact on our staff and those incarcerated.”

Morton has predicted that the cost of boarding inmates soon will reach $1 million a year. Last year, the county spent $537,625 to board Penobscot County Jail inmates at other facilities. County commissioners have budgeted $780,000 for boarding this year. On Tuesday, 75 inmates were listed as being boarded out to other jails.

This isn’t the first time county commissioners have gone back to the drawing board with the new county jail proposal.

In June 2019, county commissioners asked WBRC Architects and Engineers of Bangor to design a 250-bed jail estimated to cost $44.8 million after deciding that a 300-bed jail, at a cost of about $65 million, was too expensive.

None of the architectural firms that bid on the project thought the YMCA could be demolished and a new jail built for less than $65 million and meet industry standards for security and programming, County Administrator Bill Collins told the council last week.