Wednesday, November 15, 2006

New jail back in voters? hands

County decides to pursue bond issue

Express Staff Writer

Voters will decide in February whether to replace Blaine County?s antiquated jail, located in Hailey.

The fate of a new county jail now lies in voters' hands.

On Tuesday, the Blaine County Commission unanimously decided to pursue funding for the proposed $13 million facility via a bond election, which will be held Feb. 6 and will require the approval of two-thirds of the county electorate.

According to Commissioner Tom Bowman, the general obligation bond would be about $10.5 million and have a minimal impact on county taxpayers, raising property taxes less than $2 per $100,000 valuation. The average homeowner in Hailey, where the median home value is $407,981, would see an increase in property taxes of less than $8 per year.

The majority of the bond would be paid back via the county's justice fund.

Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling presented a slideshow to the commissioners on Tuesday displaying the safety hazards and inhumane conditions that plague the outdated 34-year-old facility.

The facility is cramped, dark and full of leaking ceilings, he said. Ventilation and natural lighting is lacking. Hallways adjacent to cells are so slim inmates can reach through the bars and grab jail employees as they walk by.

"It's so narrow it leaves them with no way to avoid inmates who may be violent," Femling said Tuesday. "Feces or urine have been thrown on them, and they have been attacked because it so easily can be done. In a modern jail, none of this would ever happen."

The cramped facility also makes it difficult to transport inmates who require treatment at a hospital. An inmate died in the jail last year, and others have sued over the conditions.

"It's just ridiculous," Femling said.

"A lot of these people in this jail have not been proven guilty and these are our citizens here," said Commissioner Tom Bowman, who's leading the charge for the new jail. "For someone to say you're in jail and you need to be punished, that's not right because you're not guilty unless a jury of your peers finds you so."

Commissioner-elect Larry Schoen, who will represent the south county in District 1 when he is inaugurated in January, also stressed the need for a new facility.

"I think it's shocking and astounding we have lived with those circumstances so long," Schoen said, adding that Blaine County is supposed to be a progressive county. "I want to be counted as a strong advocate for a new facility."

Schoen said the conditions are inhumane and "what the public should be focusing on is the level of safety for the men and women in uniform."

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

Meanwhile, construction costs have skyrocketed. On Monday, Femling told the commissioners that securing funding and moving forward in a timely manner is "really critical."

The new 35,000-square-foot facility would include the jail, sheriff's office and a centralized dispatch center. It would be built on land owned by the county at the Airport West light-industrial park in Hailey.

The county's most recent attempt to secure funding for a new facility—by using its own surplus funds—was ruled illegal by 5th District Court Judge Barry Wood in July. In August, the commission considered presenting a measure to voters to raise the local option sales tax by one-half percent to fund the new facility.

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

That measure, which also would have needed the approval of two-thirds of the electorate, was nixed by the commissioners.

On Monday the commissioners met with Michael Moore, of the Boise law firm Moore Smith Buxton & Turcke, to discuss options and strategies in presenting the bond to the citizens of Blaine County. Moore is regarded as an expert in municipal bond practice who also advised the city of Ketchum with its bond to secure new snow removal equipment in the Nov. 7 election.

On Tuesday, the commission decided to hire Moore to help them draft a resolution for the Feb. 6 election.

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