Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Judge rules against county jail plan

Wood questions need for new jail complex in Blaine County


By TERRY SMITH
Express Staff Writer

Fifth District Court Judge Barry Wood ruled last week that Blaine County's funding plan for a proposed new public safety facility is illegal. Photo by Chris Pilaro

Blaine County's plan to build a new jail and sheriff's office in Hailey has suffered a serious blow.

In a ruling that says the county's proposed funding plan for a new jail complex is illegal, a 5th District Court judge has raised doubts that the county even needs a new jail facility.

"Blaine County has not adequately demonstrated the proposed public safety facility is either ordinary or necessary," Judge Barry Wood wrote in his ruling, issued last Friday.

Wood was also critical that the county tried to fund the facility without a bond election, writing that the county failed to demonstrate "any pressing public safety emergency that would require the immediate reconstruction of a new public safety facility."

Wood's ruling settles a legal dispute between the county and Hailey resident Kate Rosekrans, who filed a court petition in December alleging the funding plan was illegal.

Blaine County commissioners were quick to react to Wood's decision. In a press release issued late Monday, they stated: "The Blaine County Board of Commissioners was disappointed with Judge Wood's decision that the county cannot replace its existing jail without raising taxes.

"This decision will delay replacement of an antiquated jail, sheriff's office and emergency dispatch center, will end up costing Blaine County residents more money, and Blaine County will be forced to ask the voters to raise taxes through a bond or local sales tax," the commissioners said.

Rosekrans' petition, filed Dec. 9, 2005, followed a Blaine County filing three days earlier of a Petition for Judicial Confirmation, a statutory requirement to ensure that the funding plan was legal. Prior to that, county voters in a 2004 advisory election gave their support to the proposed funding plan by a 67.34 percent majority.

County officials have said a new facility is needed because of population growth in the Wood River Valley and because the existing facility, built in 1972, is crowded and deteriorating.

The county's proposed plan was to replace the existing 8,800-square-foot sheriff's office and jail facility on Walnut Street in Hailey with a new 36,500-square-foot structure, to be built at the Airport West light industrial park about a mile away.

The new facility, estimated to cost about $9.5 million, would house the sheriff's office, a jail to accommodate 85 inmates and a new communications center for Blaine County, Bellevue, Hailey, Ketchum and Sun Valley law enforcement agencies.

The county intended to fund the new facility by borrowing money and repaying it with money saved from the budget each year.

But Hailey attorney Fritz Haemmerle, who represented Rosekrans in her petition against the proposed plan, said county officials misled the public on the cost of the new facility by failing to include interest and inflation in the $9.5 million estimate.

He said the actual cost could be up to $22 million.

Haemmerle also questioned the need for a new facility, noting that by the county's own records, bookings at the jail decreased by 15 percent from 2000 to 2005.

He also pointed out that Blaine County's jail is one of only seven county jails in the state that meets standards of the Idaho Sheriff's Association.

Haemmerle said he was not surprised that Wood upheld Rosekrans' petition. He said county officials were informed even before they filed for judicial confirmation that the plan would be challenged.

"My client told the county before they even did this, 'Don't file it -- it's a mistake.' It's not like we ambushed them," he said.

Haemmerle further said that the money the county intended to save each year from its budget to pay back borrowed money for construction of the proposed facility should be returned to the county's general fund to reduce annual tax levies to property owners.

Tom Bowman, vice chairman of the County Commission, was adamant that the county needs the new facility and maintained that in the long run not building it will be more costly to taxpayers.

"In the long run, the taxpayers pay for it one way or another," he said.

Bowman said the existing jail is only allowed to house 24 prisoners so "we may now be faced with sending our prisoners out of county."

Already this year, the county has spent more than $40,000 for housing juvenile offenders at Twin Falls detention facilities and $15,000 on relocating female inmates, Bowman said.

"It will be more economically efficient to keep our prisoners here," he said.

Bowman said repairs at the existing facility will also be expensive, noting that the county must now immediately spend $43,000 to fix a leaking roof.

He said it's uncertain what course the county will now pursue.

"We don't know. We haven't had time to talk about it yet."

Ruling won't sidetrack plan for consolidated dispatch

District Court Judge Barry Wood's ruling against Blaine County's funding plan for a proposed new public safety facility will not adversely affect an initiative for a countywide law enforcement communications center, Sun Valley Police Lt. Mike Crawford said Tuesday.

Crawford, who has been involved in developing the initiative, said authorities had planned to locate the center at the proposed county facility, but will look for another location if necessary.

He said completion of the center is still a few years in the future, which leaves time to change plans if necessary.

"Our goal still is consolidated dispatch," Crawford said.

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Blaine County Jail Timeline

1972 -- Existing facility built.

1990 -- County agrees to pursue new jail as part of settlement with inmate lawsuit.

1990 -- Bond election fails.

1995 -- Bond election fails.

1996 -- Bond election fails.

2004 -- Public advisory vote supports new funding plan.

2005 (Dec.) -- County seeks court approval for funding plan.

2005 (Dec.) -- Kate RoseKrans files petition challenging plan.

2006 (March) -- Court hearing on funding plan.

2006 (July) -- Judge Barry Wood rules funding plan is illegal.




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