Wednesday, August 30, 2006

County nixes tax to fund new jail

Leaders opt to pursue bond issue

Express Staff Writer

The Blaine County Commission voted Tuesday not to pursue a one-half percent local option sales tax to fund a new jail and law enforcement complex in Hailey. Instead, commissioners intend to pursue funding the proposed facility with a property tax bond issue.

The decision was tantamount to a death sentence on a proposal put forward by Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling, who wanted to put the sales tax option to voters in the November general election.

The earliest a bond election could be held is in February, said Blaine County Clerk Marsha Riemann.

Either proposal would need the approval of two-thirds of the county electorate.

"I like the idea of a local option tax the best, but I don't think it has any chance of passing at all," said Commission Vice Chairman Tom Bowman. "I want to go to the voters with something that is successful."

Commission Chairwoman Sarah Michael agreed with Bowman, and the two of them voted 2-0 to nix the local option tax idea and pursue a bond election instead. Commissioner Dennis Wright was absent.

The vote followed a public hearing where Femling presented his proposal and Blaine County Prosecuting Attorney Jim Thomas discussed the legal aspects of funding a new jail facility. Some dozen county residents attended, asked questions about funding options and generally voiced support for a new facility regardless of how it is funded.

The proposed new county law enforcement facility would house the sheriff's office, a jail and a new communications center for Blaine County, Bellevue, Hailey, Ketchum and Sun Valley law enforcement and emergency services agencies. The facility would be built on property the county owns at the Airport West light-industrial park in Hailey.

Bowman said he and Femling have scaled back plans for the jail complex to include 64 beds for inmates rather than 85 as earlier proposed. Other than that, he said, the new complex will be the most economical and best option for the county.

"We've looked at the way the administrative offices are laid out, and there's not a lot of fat there," Bowman said.

He said the proposed facility is currently estimated to cost about $12 million, which includes $9 million in principal and $3 million in interest.

Femling said the longer the issue is delayed, the higher the costs will be. He said the county also faces the risk of losing its city of Hailey building permit, which will expire in November.

Femling said a one-half percent sales tax would raise about $24 million over the next 10 years. Half the money would go to building the proposed law enforcement complex and half would go to property tax relief.

County officials have been searching for a new funding plan since early July, when 5th District Court Judge Barry Wood ruled a plan illegal that would have allowed the county to use surplus funds to build the facility.

County voters have rejected bond issues in the past to fund a new jail. The proposal failed three times in the 1990s, most recently in 1996.

Femling was disappointed with the commission's decision to not pursue a local option sales tax, but said he'll continue to work toward a new jail facility.

"My job is to run the facility, and the commissioners' job is to decide how to fund it," Femling said after the meeting.

"I presented my case the best that I could, hoping to go in November for all the reasons I presented," he said. "But we'll accept the February date and hope to get this passed."

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