June 8, 2010 in City

County picks Medical Lake site for new jail

The Spokesman-Review
 

Divided Spokane County commissioners Tuesday chose a site near Medical Lake for a second jail and the courthouse campus as a place to rehabilitate criminals.

The vote was unanimous to locate a treatment-oriented “community corrections center” near the existing jail, behind the courthouse and Public Safety Building.

Sheriff’s officials favored that site because it has better access to public transportation and other services.

The vote was 2-1 in favor of putting a replacement for the Geiger Corrections Center near the Medical Lake interchange of Interstate 90.

Commissioners Todd Mielke and Mark Richard favored that site, but Mager thought the medium-security lockup also should be on the courthouse campus, near courts and service providers.

First, though, Mager wanted to table the site selection for a year to allow a more thorough test of rehabilitative programs. That would give commissioners a better idea of how many new jail beds are needed, she said.

Also, Mager argued, commissioners should find a dedicated source of money to operate a community corrections center before asking voters to build one. Commissioners plan to put a bond measure for jail construction on the April 2011 ballot.

The center would provide classes, counseling, substance-abuse treatment, assistance in finding jobs and other measures to help offenders stay out of trouble.

Commissioners aren’t sure a construction bond measure will pass, “but I’m willing to bet that we can get people to vote for dedicated funding for the things that count,” Mager said.

She alluded to a one-tenth percent sales tax increase that might appear on the same ballot as a bond measure.

Mager’s motion to postpone the site selection died for lack of a second.

However, all three commissioners agreed to varying degrees that the proposed size of the new jail – 1,280 beds – may no longer be appropriate in view a dramatic decline in the jail population that will cause 67 corrections deputies to be laid off this later this month.

The existing jail and Geiger were “bursting at the seams” with up to 1,300 inmates a day when studies for a new jail began three years ago, but the daily average is down to 775 now, Mielke said.

The existing jail was built to hold about 460 inmates, and the proposed community corrections center would have 250 to 300 beds.

Mielke said he no longer thinks expansion is the reason to build another jail. Rather, he said, the county needs to renovate the existing jail and replace Geiger, which he described as an unsafe and insecure former Army barracks that predates World War II.

Although the jail population is down and fewer new beds may be needed, “we are still bursting at the seams,” Richard said. It’s too soon to know whether the drop in inmates is a trend or an anomaly, he said.

The chosen site near Medical Lake will give commissioners more flexibility in building an appropriately sized jail. While the courthouse campus site would require a six-story tower, the rural site would allow construction of one-story, 256-bed modules as they are needed.

It also would save $54 million over 40 years, Mielke said. But Mager said she feared higher-than-predicted operating costs at a rural site, where the new medium-security would have greater transportation costs and couldn’t share services with the existing high-security jail.

Inability to share services – such as laundry, kitchen and infirmary – is why Mielke moved to rank a third site, in Airway Heights, at the bottom of the county’s list.

Mielke said he had hoped to share facilities with the state’s Airway Heights Corrections Center, which is across Sprague Avenue from the proposed site. But state officials weren’t interested, he said.

Consultants determined that, without considering cost, the courthouse campus was the best site and the Airway Heights location was second best.

Consultants also concluded that a new high-rise jail near the existing jail would cost more than a rural complex to build, but would be cheaper to operate.

Richard and Mielke said it would take decades and full occupancy to realize a saving in operating cost.


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