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Jail vote failures will cost Kootenai County

Shipped inmates expected to cost $52 million over 10 years

Kootenai County will continue to ship inmates to other jails — to the tune of about $52 million over the next decade — following the failure Tuesday of two ballot measures that would have expanded the county jail.

“We’re still tasked with making the best decisions for the county that we can,” Commissioner Todd Tondee said Wednesday.

County commissioners also will lobby state legislators to renew the local-option sales tax that expires at the end of the year, he said. That legislation allowed the county to place two measures on Tuesday’s ballot, but both failed to garner the two-thirds support needed for passage.

The measures would have raised the county sales tax by a half-cent for 10 years, using the revenues to pay for a $57 million jail expansion and for property tax relief. The jail expansion would have added 457 beds and enlarged the kitchen, storage areas, laundry and infirmary to meet county needs for at least a decade, county officials have said. The jail today has 325 beds.

Another possible way to solve the space problem, Tondee said, would be to ask a federal judge to review the issue, which could lead to a mandate that overcrowding be addressed. Tondee said the sheriff and county commissioners had the right to ask for such a review but that he himself was “not intending on doing that.”

Major Travis Chaney of the county Sheriff’s Office said jail officials have discussed it but no decisions have been made. “Have we asked for it yet? No,” Chaney said. “That may be in the future. I can’t speak for the sheriff, but I can tell you it has been discussed.”

State Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, said he believes a local-option bill will be presented in the 2010 legislative session, which convenes Jan. 11. He said the North Idaho delegation generally supports reconstituting the legislation but said it’s likely to meet significant resistance from lawmakers opposed to additional taxes or expansion of government.

“The argument I heard (against it) is it creates a hodge-podge of taxes around the state which makes it difficult to attract business,” Sayler said. “I thought that was kind of a weak argument.”

Tondee said he knows it’s always difficult to ask for more taxes. What’s more, he said, citizens also really don’t want their tax dollars used to take care of inmates. “They don’t think they deserve the rights. That’s been a struggle every time we put this up,” said Tondee, adding that though he agrees with the sentiment, the county is mandated by law to care for its inmates.

Tondee said the county could continue reducing the size of the proposed expansion until the cost is more palatable, but then the jail likely would be full the day it opens. He said the commissioners are trying to address the county’s long-term needs.

“We could build 100 or 200 beds … then we’d be right back at them saying it’s full and we need to do it again,” Tondee said. “I don’t have the energy to do that. We have a lot more issues because that’s the way the county’s been run.”

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