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Fri., Oct. 17, 2008

Our View: Kootenai County voters should approve measures

Kootenai County officials have an unenviable sales job in trying to get a supermajority of voters to approve two ballot measures to pay for jail expansion and the construction of related public safety buildings. The price tag went from $50 million in 2005 to $147 million. The economy is tanking. And this time, the passage of a local-option sales tax increase would not be offset by a reduction in property taxes.

And yet, it must be done. The best argument for voting for the measure is to consider the alternatives. The county keeps its cramped, shoddy facilities and continues the inefficient and possibly dangerous practice of shipping inmates to other states and transporting them from the jail to the courthouse. Or, down the road, property taxes are increased to finance an expansion that would cost even more.

Skeptics should tour the county’s current facilities. The evidence room is smaller than some walk-in closets. One of two interview rooms has been turned into storage for materials related to the Joseph Duncan case. Limited meeting space forces workers to gather at a nearby coffee shop. Detectives have no designated area to spread out evidence for examination. Currently, some of the detectives spill over to an area designed for emergency preparedness meetings.

Because of overcrowding, some inmates are sent to Montana or Washington state. The space crunch also makes it difficult to segregate the population based on histories of violence, gang affiliations and the severity of their offenses. The proposed expansion would add about 500 beds.

The county no longer has a place to hold inmates before court proceedings. The dilapidated Worley Building, which used to be the court-hold area, was condemned as unsafe. This forces deputies to make several trips daily to transport inmates. Once at the courthouse, the vans are surrounded by temporary chain link fencing. Inmates are escorted right past onlookers.

Admittedly, the price tag to solve this problem is eye-popping, but that’s a reflection of the long delay in facing up to the problem and the generally high cost of construction materials. Plus, with new facilities, the county can stop the pricey practice of inefficiently driving inmates all over the region. The county estimates that housing inmates in other states would cost about $73 million in the next decade.

The structure of the two ballot measures is the best way to soften the blow to Kootenai County residents. First, a bond would be issued for the entire cost of the project. The half-cent sales tax increase would go toward paying off the bond. The property tax break that usually accompanies a local-option tax would be held back to help finance the rest of the project. The window for using the local-option tax, which can only be used for jail facilities, shuts next year.

The public has been supportive of tough crime laws, but the cost of incarceration is high. Taxpayers should vote for these two measures, but then they should demand wider use of alternatives for punishing and correcting criminal behavior.

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