The most common suggestion at Wednesday’s public hearing on where to build a new Spokane County jail was that it shouldn’t be built at all.
Many speakers urged county commissioners to focus instead on programs designed to keep offenders out of jail and out of trouble.
“I think we’re going about it backward,” Spokane resident Anne Whigham said.
More programs are needed to reduce the number of mentally ill people who wind up in jail, she said.
Construction costs ranging from $226.8 million to $265.7 million and $1.9 million to $3.3 million annual increases in operating costs – which could require a sales tax increase – also were mentioned.
For their money, taxpayers would get either a six-story, 1,280-bed tower next to the existing county jail or a compound of one-story buildings with the same number of beds on undeveloped land.
They also would get a renovation of the existing jail and a community corrections center with 250 to 300 beds for day-release inmates.
A couple of people said they are unemployed and questioned the wisdom of asking voters for so much money in what Commissioner Mark Richard described as the worst economy since the Great Depression.
“I think we’re getting in way over our head and we won’t be able to afford this,” Spokane resident James Mires said.
About 50 people attended the hearing and roughly half of them testified – for almost two hours.
The hearing was supposed to be about which of three sites the county should use to replace Geiger Corrections Center: the courthouse campus, land next to the Spokane County Raceway in Airway Heights or a spot near the Medical Lake interchange of Interstate 90.
People who live near the sites offered reasons for putting the jail somewhere else.
Airway Heights Mayor Patrick Rushing and West Central Neighborhood residents said their areas have enough burden with a state prison and the existing county jail.
Clark Peterson, who lives near the Medical Lake site, complained that traffic at the freeway interchange already backs up at times.
Several people, including former Pend Oreille County Sheriff Tony Bamonte, now a Spokane resident, said the courthouse campus is the best site. He said prisoners should be kept near courts to reduce transportation costs and security risks.
Speaking for Greater Spokane Inc., Bill Savitz said the business organization – which previously has opposed the courthouse site – favors construction of a new jail.
He said the county could save about $30 million over 20 years by choosing the Airway Heights or Medical Lake sites, but noted both are near Fairchild Air Force Base “and we want to do everything we can to protect that asset.”
If commissioners choose the courthouse site, Dr. Marcus DeWood offered to help. He said he owns property around the county campus and would like to help reduce the project’s land and construction costs.
Commissioners agreed to make their decision June 8 and will take written comments until 4 p.m. May 25.