Spokane County faces a series of deadlines for decisions on a new jail.
One is Aug. 11, which is the last day county commissioners can decide to put measures on the November ballot to ask voters to raise their property taxes for a bond issue worth hundreds of millions of dollars to build a new jail. They could also ask voters to raise their sales taxes by as much as two-tenths of a percent to pay for the jail’s operation.
Before they make that decision, however, commissioners must nail down a firmer cost for the jail, tentatively priced at $245 million, and a trimmed-down estimate for operations costs, formerly pegged at $8.5 million a year. After reviewing and “scrubbing” those operations estimates for nearly a year, that amount may be down significantly, Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich told commissioners Thursday.
The county and the city of Spokane also need to discuss whether to move law enforcement offices out of the current Public Safety Building, which Knezovich said is bursting at the seams. Moving operations away from the courthouse complex could mean sharing the cost of a new law enforcement building but saving the cost of a parking garage, which would be needed for the increasing number of vehicles if the police and sheriff stay where they are.
Before deciding how much of a sales tax increase they would seek, commissioners want to get city governments throughout the county to agree to give the cities’ share of the tax to the county. State law says the county gets to keep 60 percent of the money collected by this special voter-approved sales tax, but the cities get the other 40 percent.
Commissioners might try to sell elected officials in Spokane, Spokane Valley and the other cities on this rebate with the theory that “we’re all in this together,” Board of County Commissioners Chairman Todd Mielke said. Part of that argument goes like this: More than half the occupants of the jail are felons, and the majority of them were arrested in incorporated areas such as the cities of Spokane and Spokane Valley.
Knezovich and members of his staff expect to have final estimates on the cost of the jail and its staffing expense by next week. They want to meet with county commissioners the following week to get a decision on whether to push forward to a November election. They hope for an agreement from the cities by the end of this month to support the bond issue and rebate the sales tax money, so they can begin a campaign June 1.
“The timeline is very tight,” Knezovich said after meeting with commissioners. If city and county leaders can’t reach a consensus by the end of the month, he might urge waiting until 2010 to seek voter approval.
“The last thing we want to do is jump into a project without informing the citizens, and have them think we’re trying to slip something past them,” he said.
Commissioner Mark Richard said he hopes the public will support tax increases for a new jail, even with the tight timeline and a recession. The county originally scheduled a vote on a bond issue and a sales tax for last November but decided last July to delay it for a year to find ways to bring the costs down.
Those numbers, which are “99 percent there,” will be what the Sheriff’s Office show to city officials in the coming weeks, Richard said.
Delaying past this fall could put the county up against an even bigger deadline, he added. Designing and building a new jail will take an estimated 44 months. The county’s lease on the Geiger Corrections Center, which the new jail will replace, is up in 2013.
Passing the two proposals in a November ballot would have the new jail on track to open when Geiger closes. Waiting beyond November could mean it won’t be open in time.