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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Sheriff backs tax hike for jail

Opponents urge piecemeal approach

Kootenai County Sheriff Rocky Watson said the proposed $145 million facilities bond that would expand the jail and update all county public safety buildings boils down to this: “If you’re building a jail with sales tax, if it’s $140 million, it’s a half a cent. If it’s only $70 million, it’s a half a cent. So why phase it in? Just go get it done.”

Two measures will appear before Kootenai County voters on the general election ballot: one is a $145 million property tax bond and the other is a half-cent increase in the sales tax – boosting it to 6.5 percent for 10 years – that would be used to offset the property tax increase. Voters would need to approve both measures for them to work in this manner. About $88 million of the money would be used to expand the county jail and the rest would renovate public safety buildings with upgrades that would last until 2020, said county Commissioner Todd Tondee, a supporter.

The local option sales tax can only be used for two things: to expand the jail and provide property tax relief. By increasing the sales tax by a half-cent for 10 years, supporters say, enough money would be raised to pay off the property tax increase.

Both measures require supermajorities to pass. With interest, the county would need to repay slightly more than $180 million.

“If the bond passes and we’re a little short, then it will be on the property tax,” Tondee said. However, he said, “I have estimates that we’re going to generate well over what’s needed, and realistically, we will pay off the bonds early with the sales tax.”

However, county Finance Director David McDowell said, in this time of economic downturn, it’s reasonable to expect the sales tax measure will raise $157 million over 10 years. That would leave about $24 million to be repaid using property taxes. That sum would cost the average homeowner, with $100,000 of taxable value, about $15.60 per year for 10 years.

“We try to be as conservative as possible,” McDowell said, acknowledging that the dynamics of the economy could change during the 10 years. “It’s going to depend on the crystal ball you look at.”

As an example of the county’s need to update its buildings, Tondee cited the recent condemnation of the Worley Building, a holding building for defendants awaiting court hearings.

Several candidates for commission, including board Chairman Rick Currie, oppose the measure or have problems with how it’s structured. Currie’s two opponents, Independent Bob Macdonald and Democrat Steve Caires, feel it’s too much money or that the proposal was not thoroughly vetted. In Tondee’s race for re-election, Democrat Bruce Noble said the study proposing the expenditure came through at the last minute and is being pushed through “all or nothing.” And Independent Greg Wells outright opposes expanding the jail.

“I think we should do that more piecemeal,” Macdonald said, adding that he understands the desire to use the local option sales tax before it sunsets in 2009. “But I wouldn’t hurry up and do it just because of that. It would be nice to have a blank check and … take care of all the needs, but I don’t think that’s responsible.”

Caires said that as Lakes Middle School assistant principal, he promoted a $31 million bond to improve the school. It failed, and Caires said the message he heard from voters was that it was too much money and the district should focus on “one item at a time.” He said people will support taxes to improve public facilities if the case is made that they’re fiscally responsible.

The local option sales tax was originally intended, Caires said, to offset property taxes. In troubled economic times, the opportunity for property tax relief shouldn’t be taken away by devoting it to such a large measure, he said. “I want to see buildings, but I want a formulated plan that can be affordable for people. Growth is necessary and we need to get things implemented. Space is a luxury right now in county offices.”

However, Watson said it’s irresponsible to ignore the need to expand the jail at a time when overflow is causing the county to spend millions of dollars every year renting space for inmates in other locales. The next “empty beds” available, he said, are in Yakima and Hardin, Mont. In addition, he said, other jails only take Kootenai County’s low-risk inmates, leaving a jail full of high-risk inmates and increasing the danger level to detention officers.

“The whole logistics of that, of officer safety, of having a transport officer out there with a vanload of people on a snowy night heading for Montana,” Watson said. “If the jail bond fails, that will completely change the way we do business.”