Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Commissioner offers criticism of jail proposal

Advisory vote included on county ballot

Express Staff Writer

After three failed bond elections in the 1990s, Blaine County has decided once again to try to push for a new jail.

This time, however, instead of asking voters to approve a bond to fund the facility, the Blaine County Commission will ask voters Tuesday, Nov. 2, for permission to spend county savings to build the facility, which could range from $8 million to $9.5 million. Also, rather than only include a jail, the facility would house a new sheriff?s office and consolidated Emergency 911-dispatch center.

The vote will be advisory in nature, but county commissioners have said they will try to proceed with the public?s wishes in mind.

?It is advisory. We?re just hoping it gives us some direction,? Commission Chairman Dennis Wright told the Sun Valley City Council last week.

There are questions, however, about how Blaine County would actually fund the new facility and how much it would cost.

In a guest opinion in today?s Idaho Mountain Express, Blaine County Commissioner Mary Ann Mix stated that a 2003 study by the Washington-based DLR Group indicated the jail could cost as much as $13 million, which could spur an annual payment of more than $1 million over 15 years.

Mix, who did not return a telephone call to discuss the matter, wrote that the $8 million figure cited by commissioners resulted from a conversation between Wright and the Beniton Construction company.

Mix also contended that it is unclear who would own the facility under the county?s plan.

Moreover, she implied that alternative options to house a new consolidated dispatch center have not been exhaustively researched. Last October, Wood River/Sawtooth Region EMS Association Chairman Len Harlig relayed to commissioners that the Blaine County School District had offered to house a consolidated dispatch center at the old high school, now called Community Campus.

Mix said another building, across from the Blaine County Sheriff?s Office in Hailey, was offered as well.

In an interview last month, Blaine County Communications Center Board Chairman Ron LeBlanc offered a cryptic explanation about why the Community Campus option had not been pursued. In response to questions about the location, he first said he did not know about the proposal and later asked what leverage Harlig had, or should have, in the matter.

But Hailey Police Chief Brian McNary, another member of the communications center board, said the old high school would be costly to retrofit and difficult to secure from other users in the building, including a teen hangout, the Blaine County Recreation District offices and an Internet café.

An official evaluation does not appear to have been done.

But the fact of the matter is, most local residents, including Mix, appear to agree that a new jail is needed.

?It?s one of those deals where we?re just going to have to bite the bullet and go for it,? said Hailey resident Steve Dick.

Another Hailey resident, Mark Sliwicki, agreed that a new jail needs to be built, but said he doesn?t want a new facility erected inside his town.

?I don?t think that?s what we need in the center of Hailey,? he said. ?Put it out in the lava rock, where if they get out and run, they?re not going to want to.?

In the mid-1990s, the county bought 3.23 acres on Aviation Drive in the Airport West subdivision in southern Hailey to build a jail and public safety facility. That is the majority of the Blaine County Commission?s preferred site for a new jail. Seeking a blessing from the public in the Nov. 2 advisory vote is the first step of a potentially long process that would include hearings before the Hailey City Council and Hailey Planning and Zoning Commission.

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