Local news

County crafts $147 million ballot item

Plan calls for jail expansion, public safety overhaul

Kootenai County officials say they can expand the county jail and overhaul other public safety buildings without raising property tax bills, despite the projects’ combined $147 million price tag.

The Kootenai County Commission will decide today on language for the November ballot, which will spell out how to pay for the jail and other public safety facilities.

The commissioners and Finance Director David McDowell were tight-lipped Monday about the specifics of the plan, saying they were hammering out final details.

But the concept, they said, is to issue bonds to pay for the entire $147 million project recommended in June by an Olympia consultant. Whether to issue those bonds could be the first question for voters on the November ballot.

The second question might ask voters whether to raise the sales tax in Kootenai County by a half-cent – to 6.5 percent – for 10 years to pay for the jail expansion, which makes up about $110 million of the total price tag.

The county used a half-cent sales tax to pay for the $12 million jail expansion in 2000.

The mechanism is often popular because half of all revenue raised is earmarked for property tax relief. But in this instance, property owners wouldn’t see that relief.

By law, the local-option sales tax can only go toward detention facilities. So residents’ property taxes would be raised by the exact amount of the property tax relief to pay off the remaining $37 million of the bond, which would go toward the administrative buildings that don’t qualify as detention facilities. The net effect would be no increase in the property tax rate.

“That’s a pretty good deal if we can do it,” Commissioner Todd Tondee said.

Sheriff Rocky Watson also supports the proposal.

“I don’t want my property taxes going up, either,” he said.

He said that the public safety issues are undeniable and that he thinks voters understand the need.

And it’s one of the last chances for the county to utilize the half-cent sales tax option before the law sunsets in 2009. “We can correct a lot of public safety issues, and nobody’s property tax goes up,” Watson said.

Commission Chairman Rick Currie supports the funding plan but thinks the price tag is too high. That’s why he intends to vote against the ballot-language proposal today.

He worries that the “no property tax increase” promise won’t hold because of a slowing economy, which means less sales tax revenue, especially in resort areas like Kootenai County. The Idaho Legislature also has attempted to end the sales tax on groceries, which also would reduce the amount of money collected to pay for the jail, Currie said.

This month Idaho announced a slowdown in sales tax collections, evidence of consumers spending less. June sales tax receipts totaled $95 million, down from $101 million in June 2007.

McDowell said ensuring property taxes won’t rise makes projects more palatable to voters. But the $147 million bill means revenue projections are “going to be very close.”

That $147 million is $97 million higher than a proposal rejected by voters in 2005. What will residents get?

The county could add about 495 beds to satisfy the need for jail space through 2020. It would also include a larger kitchen, laundry and medical facility. The growing jail population has resulted in a need for more beds, especially in 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.

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.

About $36 million would construct a new administration building just north of the existing offices at Dalton Avenue and Government Way. The new building would also house the county’s 911 center, which is outgrowing its space on Julia Street, and the driver’s license and auto licensing offices now at the Kootenai County Administration Building in Coeur d’Alene.

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

There’s also money in the plan to build an inmate holding facility on the courthouse campus, where inmates wait to go to court, Tondee said. The county now holds inmates in vans parked in a fenced lot outside the courthouse, because the building that was being used for that purpose was condemned.

Contact Erica F. Curless at (208) 765-7137 or by e-mail at ericac@spokesman.com.


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