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Sunday, March 24, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Idaho

Kootenai undecided on jail expansion

The Kootenai County Commission hasn’t yet decided whether to pitch another jail expansion measure – a $55 million sales tax proposal – this November.

Commissioner Katie Brodie said Tuesday the commission realizes it can’t hold up potential campaign efforts but that it needs time to evaluate the new proposal from the Jail Expansion Citizen’s Advisory Committee.

“Time is scarce,” Brodie said, but she gave no timeline for the decision.

The advisory committee presented the $55 million recommendation to the commission Tuesday. The group was formed to evaluate what went wrong last fall when voters rejected a similar expansion proposal for $50 million.

The commission thanked the group for its work but gave little indication how it might proceed.

“It’s an issue that’s not going away,” Commission Chairman Gus Johnson said. “We need to be diligent in our decision on which way to go.”

The commission doesn’t have to accept the group’s recommendation and could opt to lower the price tag or pursue the project in phases.

The three commissioners also could take no action, leaving it up to Commissioner Rick Currie and the two new commissioners who will take office in January. The soonest the new commission could put the measure on the ballot is November 2007. Brodie and Johnson lost re-election bids in the May Republican primary.

Colleen Allison, the chairwoman of the advisory group and a county grant writer, said she is opposed to doing the project in phases because the county likely would lose its ability to use sales tax revenue to fund the jail expansion.

The local-option sales tax option expires in 2009, unless the Idaho Legislature extends the law.

“I don’t know how well we were able to explain that to the public,” Allison 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 previous $12 million jail expansion that voters approved in 2000.

Allison said she also is opposed to the current commission taking no action, leaving the decision for the new commission next year. That, she said, sends a bad message to the courts, which ultimately could order the county to expand its jail because of safety concerns associated with overcrowding.

That’s why the advisory committee recommended the $55 million jail expansion proposal. The recommendation is $5 million more than last fall’s proposal because of rising construction costs. If the measure does go before voters again, Allison said, the citizen group is ready to campaign.

The county acknowledges it failed to make its case in the last go-around, leaving many misconceptions with the public.

A recent survey by Robinson Research of Spokane supports that conclusion. The findings show that the measure failed because “property taxes are too high already,” indicating voters were apparently unaware that the jail expansion would have been funded through a local-option sales tax increase, not property taxes.

Allison said the citizens group has formed a fundraising committee that can accept campaign donations.

The jail is licensed to hold 325 prisoners. It frequently holds more than that, forcing the county to ship inmates to jails in other counties and states.

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