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County commissioners to decide today on delaying jail bond vote

Spokane County commissioners plan to decide today whether to keep a jail bond measure off the ballot this year.

Commissioners appear to be leaning in that direction and have scheduled a news conference this afternoon to announce their decision.

“We haven’t made that decision yet,” Commissioner Mark Richard said Monday. “We’re planning on having a discussion throughout tomorrow.”

Waiting in the wings for a future discussion is the possibility of breaking the proposed $199.5 million bond measure into more-digestible pieces. Commissioners Al French and Todd Mielke have expressed interest in that approach.

Richard, who has taken the lead on the jail proposal, said he “vehemently” favors a “comprehensive” approach. He wants “an empty jail bed” to back up programs designed to keep offenders out of jail.

Richard said he doesn’t know whether that objective can be maintained with phased construction.

“I haven’t put my arms around that yet,” he said.

The current plan calls for a 752-bed Geiger replacement, a new 192-bed community corrections center and renovation of the Spokane County Jail back to its original 462 beds – for a total of 1,406 beds.

Several prospective election dates, including one next month, have been abandoned as county officials refined the proposal.

If commissioners put off the vote again, they likely would abandon a controversial emergency effort to rezone the proposed site of a Geiger Corrections Center replacement.

“There wouldn’t be any emergency,” Richard said.

An emergency declaration allowed the county Planning Commission to begin work on rezoning the site near the Medical Lake interchange on Interstate 90 without waiting for the normal annual review period this fall.

Opponents argued at a March 17 public hearing that no true emergency ever existed, opening a door for litigation that could cloud a bond sale. Closing that door isn’t likely to silence jail and land-use critics.

They also object that it’s inappropriate to rezone 429 acres and enlarge an urban growth area to accommodate a 40-acre jail site. The land would be rezoned from “rural traditional” to “light industrial,” a category that already is abundant on the West Plains.

Meanwhile, commissioners are considering a Nevada company’s offer to design and build the project on a lease-to-own basis.

Peter Wenner, senior vice president of the Molasky Group of Companies, told commissioners last week that the firm has experience in reducing costs on jails and other public buildings. A savings of 18 percent to 20 percent is possible, Wenner suggested.

However, the lease-to-own formula that has helped other local governments has limited value for Spokane County. Officials say a bond measure probably would still be needed because the county doesn’t have enough general fund income to cover lease payments.

Even so, Richard said he is “extremely intrigued” by Wenner’s proposal.

“I am challenging our staff to really scrub our assumptions,” he said.

Perhaps lease payments could be afforded if maintenance and operation costs could be reduced sufficiently, Richard said.