Wednesday, November 3, 2004

Femling wins close race over Gunter

Jail advisory vote gives decisive OK to funding plan

Express Staff Writer

Voters turned out in record numbers Tuesday for a hotly contested general election for the Blaine County Sheriff?s Office that returned Walt Femling, the 17-year Republican incumbent, to another four years in office. Voters also gave a decisive nod to a funding plan for a new jail facility that likely will include a sheriff?s office and Enhanced 911 dispatch center.

In a marathon count of the county?s 15 precincts, the sheriff race came down to a relatively tight decision for Femling over Hailey Police Lt. Jeff Gunter, the Democratic challenger.

Femling defeated Gunter by 941 votes (5,421 to 4,480) in final results for the county?s 15 precincts that came in at 1:45 a.m. Wednesday.

Voter turnout was 87 percent, including 2,913 absentee ballots.

On the jail front, the County Commission finally won an OK from the voters, after three failed bond elections in the 1990s. The yes column on the advisory ballot recorded an early lead and ended the evening with 6,472 votes to 3,139 no votes in the final tallies from the 15 precincts.

This time instead of asking voters to approve a bond to fund the facility, the Blaine County Commission had asked for an advisory vote to support the expenditure of county savings to build the facility. The cost for a new jail, which may include the sheriff?s office and a consolidated Emergency 911-dispatch center, could range from $8 million to $9.5 million.

Although construction of a new jail at this point is still in the hands of the county commissioners, the sheriff?s candidates have also formed an opinion on the matter. Femling, a self-described jail expert, supports combining three services, jail, sheriff?s office and consolidated dispatch under one roof. Gunter, on the other hand, feels that the jury is still out on combining services rather than retrofit existing buildings.

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