Spokane County commissioners have a critical decision to make, and they don’t have much time.
In coming months they have to choose a site for a new regional jail (voters willing) to replace both the present, 24-year-old city-county jail and Geiger Corrections Center. At nearly 1,300 inmates between them, the two facilities are dangerously near their maximum combined capacity.
Simple population growth demands that the county take steps soon to accommodate the next 25 years, during which, according to a 2004 projection, the population will grow by 65 inmates a year. But the pressure is further intensified because the county’s lease on World War II-vintage Geiger will expire in 2013, and it could take as long as five years to build the replacement.
The county has recognized this combination of challenges for more than two years, but as of today there still are 10 sites to choose from. A pair of complex analyses ranks three of the competing sites as the most suitable: the Medical Lake Interchange on Interstate 90, a gravel pit at Sprague and Russell in Airway Heights, and the existing jail site next to the Public Safety Building.
The evaluations that produced those rankings considered many factors but neglected a vital one: the cost of construction. If cost had been included, it’s doubtful the cramped two-acre jail site would have scored so highly. It alone among the alternatives would require a costlier multistory structure.
A vertical design, according to Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, who will have ultimate responsibility for running the facility, has been estimated to cost about $265 million. A horizontal design would not only be some $36 million cheaper; it would allow new capacity to be added in the future on an incremental, as-needed basis.
Building farther away from the courthouse and Public Safety Building might incur slightly greater operational costs, but not enough, in Knezovich’s calculation, to offset the construction savings during the structure’s life.
No wonder the sheriff, who’s been surveying jail decisions in other communities around the country, found that horizontal designs are the consistent preference.
For the sake of comparison, the current jail cost $22.5 million to build in 1986 – approximately $45 million in today’s dollars. It was expected to last about 25 years, which it has. It was designed to house 475 inmates but holds about 675 now. The facility it replaced had been designed for 160 inmates but housed 299 when vacated in 1986.
So it goes with jails.
Before much longer, Spokane County voters will be asked to support a bond issue, and possibly a sales tax to cover operating expenses, to replace the current, inadequate jail. They will want, and deserve, evidence that the county commissioners are exercising reason and frugality.
A reassuring first step would be to remove the current jail site and the needlessly expensive vertical design from consideration.
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