Critics of November’s failed $50 million jail expansion measure said Kootenai County asked for too much.
They suggested the county pare down the proposal or do the project in phases with a price tag that wouldn’t be so shocking for tax-weary voters.
Instead of asking for less, the citizens committee formed to evaluate what went wrong in fall has come back with a proposal seeking $5 million more. County Jail Capt. Travis Chaney said the increase is due to rising construction costs.
“The needs of the facility require the $55 million,” said Chaney, who serves on the Citizen Jail Expansion Advisory Committee. “It all boils down to that.”
Chaney said the panel considered a lower amount but determined it wouldn’t have been enough to address overcrowding and other concerns.
“It’s a public safety issue and a community issue,” Chaney said. “It comes with growth, and it comes with change. We’re seeing much harder inmates in this facility than we ever have before, to include gang members.”
Chaney said overcrowding at the jail poses a safety threat to the people who work there. As of this week, the county is housing 35 inmates at jails in other counties and out of state to alleviate overcrowding.
The county budgeted $1.1 million this year to cover the cost of housing inmates elsewhere. Chaney said that figure doesn’t include the cost of overtime and expenses associated with moving the inmates.The committee’s recommendation will be presented soon to Kootenai County commissioners, who will decide whether to put the measure on November’s ballot for the second time.
Commissioner Katie Brodie said Wednesday she doesn’t want to say what she thinks of the proposal until it comes before the commission. Commissioner Rick Currie said he hadn’t seen the committee report but heard about the proposed $55 million figure.
“It’s a lot of money, and I guess we need to decide what we feel voters of Kootenai County will accept,” he said. “I’ve got some research to do.”
Commissioner Gus Johnson didn’t return calls seeking comment Wednesday.
If the measure does go before voters again, the campaign would have to do a better job explaining the proposal, Brodie said. She doesn’t think voters understood that half of the local-option sales tax would go to property tax relief.
That sentiment was echoed in a report the committee discussed Wednesday. Robinson Research of Spokane surveyed 600 Kootenai County voters. Many said they thought the measure failed because “property taxes are too high already,” apparently unaware the jail expansion would have been funded through a local sales tax increase, not a property tax increase.
The report said the survey revealed “significant misperceptions” about how the expansion would be funded. The report also said Kootenai County voters are “extraordinarily hostile about taxes.”
“The biggest concern people have is with their property taxes,” said Linda Davis, co-chairwoman of the committee. “This happens to be the measure that gives them an infrastructure piece they need for safety and also gives property tax relief at the same time.”
Jail measure opponent Tom Macy, an Independent candidate for county commissioner in the November general election, said he didn’t think the chances were good that voters would approve the measure on the second try.
“I think they’re probably worse than last fall,” Macy said. “People have since gotten their property valuations.”
But Todd Tondee, the Republican nominee squaring off with Macy in November, said he thinks the committee’s proposal reflects the need of the community.
To pass the measure, Tondee said, the commission needs to hold community forums and work harder to educate people on why the jail expansion is needed and how it would be funded.
“I think it’s needed,” he said. “If anybody goes through and tours the jail, they would understand.”
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