Every day, Bonner County spends about $950 to house prisoners in other Idaho jails because its facility is too small.
That’s $346,000 of wasted taxpayer money a year - the best reason for residents to pass a jail levy later this month, said Commissioner Steve Klatt.
“This is the most critical issue in Bonner County from a taxpayer’s standpoint,” he said. “I hope voters in their wisdom realize this will only get more expensive and it’s time to get on with it and build a new jail.”
The county has tried three times in four years to pass a jail levy and get out of its dilapidated 87-year-old facility. This time, the county has a $3.95 million project on the table. That’s more than $1 million less than the last jail plan.
“The jail committee has worked diligently to fix what the public said was wrong with the last three jail proposals,” said committee chairman Jacque Schremser.
“You said it was too big - we reduced the square footage. You said it was too expensive - we reduced the total cost 45 percent. You said the design was too radical - it is now more conventional. We have listened,” she said.
The latest proposal goes to voters on May 28, the same day as Idaho’s primary elections. The two-year levy needs only a simple majority to pass.
But in the last few months, residents here have rejected two multimillion-dollar levies. One was for a new library and the other would have given the school district money to repair buildings and buy buses and textbooks.
“We are taking a long shot on any levy we put before the people, but I’m hoping voters said ‘no’ on the other two issues to say ‘yes’ to this critical county issue,” Klatt said.
County officials fear that if something is not done to ease problems at the jail, they will face lawsuits from inmates. That could prompt a judge to order the county to build a facility that would have to meet federal standards and be much more expensive.
“I would much rather have this approach rather than face federal intervention,” Klatt said.
The county got into trouble before with inmate lawsuits. Five years ago, several prisoners successfully sued the county claiming a stay in the antiquated jail was cruel and unusual punishment. The county was put under a court order to reduce the number of inmates it holds from 29 to 15. The county averages about 50 inmates a day.
The overflow of prisoners must be hauled to other jails in Idaho and Washington, sometimes a 10-hour drive away. The inmates must be ferried back to Bonner County for court appearances.
The constant shuffle wastes officers’ time, and costs the county in fuel, wear and tear on vehicles, wages and even food, since prisoners sometimes have to be fed at fast-food restaurants while being transported.
Sheriff Chip Roos said it’s like “flushing money down the toilet.” If the jail levy passed the first time, the county already would have saved $1.6 million in taxpayer money.
“Each year, the cost to transport and house inmates out of county increases. That’s wasting tax dollars,” Schremser said. “The proposed new jail will never cost less.”
The new 25,629-square-foot jail would hold about 80 prisoners and could be expanded easily. It would be built on 20 acres the county already owns near the fairgrounds.
The levy would cost the owner of a $100,000 home about $95 a year.
“Most people realize we need a new jail and I am optimistic about it passing this time,” Klatt said.
The jail committee will not disband if the levy passes. The group plans to monitor construction and the first year of jail operation to make sure taxpayers get what was promised.
Commissioners also agreed to put money saved from not having to transport prisoners into a special account. The account can be tapped to expand the jail instead of going back to the taxpayers.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: VOTE IS MAY 28 The latest jail levy proposal goes to voters May 28, the same day as primary elections. The two-year levy needs only a simple majority to pass. But in the last few months, Sandpoint residents have rejected two multimillion-dollar levies. One was for a new library and the other would have given the school district money to repair buildings and buy buses and textbooks.