Voters reject ‘jail tax’

Kootenai County voters Tuesday rejected using sales tax dollars to pay for a $50 million jail expansion, meaning the county will almost immediately start shipping inmates to out-of-county facilities to combat overcrowding.

“We are maxed out there and people are sleeping on the floor,” Commission Chairman Gus Johnson said. “We’re going to have to find places to put them.”

Even though 61.6 percent of the voters supported the idea, the local-option sales tax measure failed to muster the required two-thirds majority. Johnson blames the failure on a combination of extremely low voter turnout – 21.4 percent – and what he calls ill-informed opposition from the Hagadone Corp. and a powerful business lobby.

The county commission must now decide whether to go back to voters next November and ask again for sales tax dollars. The county could also ask voters to pass a bond or wait until the overcrowding – and potential for lawsuits – is so dire at the jail that a judge demands a bond to pay for the expansion.

The county estimates that a bond will cost property owners an extra $10 million than if the expansion was paid for with sales tax dollars – a revenue stream that is boosted by tourists.

The half-cent local option sales tax would have allowed for up to a $50 million jail expansion to nearly double the number of beds and add a new kitchen, laundry facility and space for records storage.

The deal also would have included at least $50 million in property tax relief, because the sales tax option requires that at least as much money raised for the jail go toward reducing property taxes.

The county is using the local-option tax to pay for the $12 million jail expansion that voters approved in 2000.

The loudest opponent to the jail measure was Concerned Businesses of North Idaho, the area’s largest business lobby.

Its members claimed that the $50 million price tag was too high and that the ballot language was too vague, giving the county too much flexibility on how to spend the money.

Last month the group asked county commissioners to take the measure off the ballot and rework the language so it could go back to voters in May.

The commission refused.

Dick Freeman of Hayden Lake said the jail plan is too extravagant and that he came to the polls just to “vote down the doggone tax for the jail.”

“Why should they (inmates) live a lot better than people out here?” he questioned.

County resident Colleen O’Connell said she voted for the half-cent sales tax because it would lower property taxes.

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