Kootenai County voters likely won’t get to decide in November whether to pass a $55 million sales tax proposal to expand the jail.
County commissioners haven’t yet decided whether to pitch the measure, but it appears there isn’t enough support to launch a campaign – at least not for the full price tag.
That means the decision may rest with the next commission, which will have two new members in January.
“It’s unlikely to be on the ballot in November,” Commissioner Katie Brodie said Monday. “I don’t think it’s a plan the commissioners feel the public would accept.”
Rick Currie, the only commissioner who will remain on the three-member board in January, said he doesn’t think voters would swallow the $55 million proposed cost, but he’s also opposed to waiting until May to have a special election on the issue.
Commission Chairman Gus Johnson didn’t return phone calls seeking comment.
The commission has until Aug. 1 to make a final decision. That’s the deadline for getting language on the November ballot, County Clerk Dan English said.
Yet the pro-jail campaign team hasn’t given up hope.
“We would have to gear up extremely rapidly, which we could do, to go on with the sales pitch,” said Colleen Allison, a county grant writer and member of the Jail Expansion Citizen’s Advisory Committee that made the $55 million recommendation to the commission in June.
The group was formed to evaluate why voters rejected a similar expansion proposal for $50 million last fall. Instead of coming back with a smaller price tag or a proposal to expand in phases, the committee added $5 million to the bill because of increased construction costs.
Allison said she doesn’t think commissioners are sidestepping the issue and instead are immersed in hearing nearly 1,000 property valuation appeals. The appeal hearings have consumed the commissioners for weeks. They have until Monday to hear all the appeals. That means the commission could make an official decision on the jail at its Aug. 1 public meeting.
Currie hopes the commission can find time to do it sooner.
“We’ve kept everyone in the lurch for nearly a month, and that’s not right,” he said.
Allison said the jail committee last week agreed that it might be better to have a May special election, when the expansion would be the only issue on the ballot. There will be numerous items on the November ballot, including the governor’s race and several statewide initiatives.
“We will just do whatever they want us to do,” Allison said.
Currie is opposed to the May election because too few residents would vote, leaving a huge taxing decision to a small segment of the population.
Tom Macy, an Independent commission candidate running against Republican Todd Tondee in November, said it would be wise to leave the jail issue off the fall ballot.
“With the mood of the public right now, I don’t think they could pass enough financing for a piece of gum,” Macy said. Whoever wins his race will replace Johnson, who lost to Tondee in the Republican primary.
Macy advocates finding a way to reduce the jail population without forcing taxpayers to pay for new cells.
Tondee, a Post Falls city councilman, said an expansion is needed but $55 million is a hefty price. Yet he said spending $1 million a year to transport inmates out of state to alleviate overcrowding isn’t a good option, either. He said it needs more study.
The jail is licensed to hold 325 prisoners. It frequently holds more than that, some days up to 400 people, forcing the county to ship inmates to jails in other counties and states.
The expansion could add as many as 250 beds, including single-person cells where high-risk inmates are kept, in addition to a larger kitchen and laundry facility.
Commissioner-elect Rich Piazza, who ousted Brodie in the Republican primary and has no opponent in the upcoming election, declined to comment. Brodie questioned whether it might be possible to reduce the price by building 70 segregated cells. But she said the question of expanding the kitchen and laundry remain.
“It’s a domino effect,” she said.
Both the commission and the advisory group agree that the local-option sales tax is the best way to pay for the jail expansion because it provides an equal amount of property tax relief.
That’s how the county paid for the $12 million jail expansion that voters approved in 2000.
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