Friday, September 24, 2004

Is it time for new jail?

County hosts meeting on public safety facility

Express Staff Writer

Blaine County Commissioners will host a meeting Tuesday to inform voters about the county?s need for a new public safety building and the various options for financing the facility.

The meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 28, at 6 p.m. at the Old Blaine County Courthouse in Hailey, a day after the commission is scheduled to set the levy for the tax year beginning next month.

The board will seek voter approval on Nov. 2 to save money and use existing funds to pay for a new county jail, sheriff?s office and consolidated E-911 dispatch center.

?By being frugal, Blaine County has been successful in paying for our new (Courthouse Annex) without raising taxes,? Commissioner Sarah Michael said earlier this month. ?We want to take this approach to pay for a new jail, sheriff?s office and consolidated dispatch center.?

In 1994 and 1996, Blaine County asked voters to pass bond issues for construction of a new jail, but fell short of the required super majority. This November?s vote will be advisory in nature, but county commissioners have said they will proceed with the public?s wishes in mind.

Michael noted that the Idaho Legislature recently authorized resort counties to implement county-wide sales taxes to fund new jails.

?We don?t think that the county should ask voters to increase taxes to pay for this facility if we can use our savings for a down payment and borrow the remaining funds,? Michael said.

So, what the ballot question does is ask voters if the new facility would be an acceptable expenditure using money from the county?s coffers. Either way, tax money will be used.

The ballot question will read:

?Citizens groups and elected county officials over the past 10 years have documented the need for a new county jail, sheriff?s office and a consolidated dispatch center. Estimates for a new public safety facility range from $8 million to $9.5 million, not including interest.

?The board of Blaine County Commissioners proposes to pay for a new public safety facility through a county savings program and by using available general revenues to repay borrowed construction funds. We would like to have your opinion.

?Should Blaine County use savings and existing revenues for the purpose of constructing a new public safety facility? Yes. No.?

Blaine County funded its new $3.4 million Courthouse Annex building using a similar method, essentially a practice of over-budgeting and under-spending. In August, when Blaine County property assessments were boosted between 10 and 140 percent, Idaho Senate Minority Leader Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, pointed out that such spending has an impact on property taxes.

?The local property taxes are a direct reflection of how the local entities spend,? he said, pointing out that Blaine County has been sitting on a reserve fund of between $8 and $5 million for several years. That money could be used as property tax relief.

The reserve totals $4.9 million in the county?s 2004-2005 fiscal budget, though some of that money is already earmarked for the new jail and for covering expenses before property taxes begin rolling in this year.

?As a taxpayer, I realized that there is a significant amount of money in the county budget that could be given back to the taxpayer,? Stennett said.

County Commission Chairman Dennis Wright argued that the reserve is actually significantly smaller than the $4.9 million figure, which was obtained from the Blaine County Clerk during the county?s budgeting process in August.

Wright said that when he began crunching numbers, the amount of money that would fall back in the pockets of local residents would be relatively small.

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