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Spokane

Cost of jail, sheriff’s complex soars

Tue., July 1, 2008

It’s no typo – the cost to expand the Kootenai County Jail and build a new sheriff’s administration complex next door could total nearly $147 million.

The announcement Monday sent sticker shock across the county.

It took the Kootenai County Commission a week to digest the news and make public the cost. Now the commission must figure out how to sell the plan to voters, who would decide in November if they want to pay the bill, a whopping $97 million more than a more modest proposal rejected by voters in 2005.

“Whoever sees that number is going to be like, ‘Oh my gosh,’ ” Commissioner Todd Tondee said. “It’s just a huge number. But that doesn’t change the fact we need it.”

Consultants hired to recommend how to expand the jail and overhaul the county’s public safety network revealed their findings last week. Yet the three commissioners refused to release the estimated cost until Monday, giving them time to compile a seven-page report explaining the need.

“We wanted people to have the facts as well as the number,” Tondee said.

The report emphasizes that Kootenai County’s population is expected to swell to nearly 250,000 people within 12 years. What it doesn’t detail is how to pay for the project and what will be on the November ballot.

County Clerk Dan English said the commission has until mid-July to hammer out those details in time for him to prepare the ballot.

Spokane County voters might also vote on a new jail in downtown Spokane behind the current lockup – a plan that could cost about $100 million. The Spokane County Commission has until Aug. 12 to decide whether to ask voters in November for a property tax increase to pay for it.

The Kootenai County recommendation, by KMB Design Groups of Olympia, calls for a nearly $110 million jail expansion with about 495 additional beds to satisfy the need for jail space through 2020. The growing population has resulted in a need for more jail beds, especially segregated cells to separate violent offenders, gang members and felons, the consultants said. For two years the county has shipped inmates to Washington and Montana to ease overcrowding and segregation problems.

The county estimates it would cost a minimum of nearly $73 million to continue housing inmates out of state in the next decade, assuming the other jails have room.

Commissioner Rich Piazza said that’s the worst use of tax dollars because the community would not get a building or additional jail space for the expense.

This is the last chance for the county to exercise the local-option sales tax to pay for the jail expansion. The state law allowing the half-cent sales tax increase, in which half of all revenues raised goes toward property tax relief, expires in 2009.

Yet the commission doubts it’s possible for a sales tax increase to cover the entire $110 million jail cost, likely leaving the balance to be funded through a property tax increase.

The county likely would have to pass a separate property tax increase to fund the proposed $36 million administration building just north of the existing offices at Dalton and Government Way. By law, the county can’t use the local-option sales tax to fund non-jail facilities.

The new building would be big enough to house the county’s 911 center, which is outgrowing its space on Julia Street, and the driver’s license and auto licensing offices at the Kootenai County Administration Building in Coeur d’Alene.

The Kootenai County Office of Emergency Management, now squeezed into the basement of the sheriff administration building, would move into the current 911 center.

Sheriff Rocky Watson described the moves as a “house of dominoes” that shows how overcrowded all the public safety facilities are and why it’s important to take a long-term view and not just ask taxpayers for a jail.

In 2005, voters narrowly rejected a $50 million sales tax proposal for a jail expansion. At the time, the same consultants recommended adding about the same number of beds.

Commission Chairman Rick Currie wasn’t available for comment Monday, but in May he said he expected the recommendation to total perhaps $75 million – a figure he thought was too high.

Watson said the county is presenting voters with the “true numbers” and that he sees no way to whittle down the cost. He said if voters reject the proposal, the cost will just keep rising.

“There’s no cheaper way to solve the problem,” he said.



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