Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Sheriff stresses importance of new jail

Special bond election less than two weeks away

Express Staff Writer

Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling shows cramped recreation quarters at the county?s dilapidated jail facility. Photo by Willy Cook

People who are opposed to a bond that would help pay for a new county jail and communications center should take a tour of the current facility, Sheriff Walt Femling said Monday.

"Once they walk in there, they're horrified," Femling, who's been trying to corral funding for a new jail for 15 years, said about people who've taken tours of the current 34-year-old dilapidated facility.

Blaine County voters will determine the fate of a new public safety facility in a special bond election Feb. 6.

If approved by two-thirds of the voters, county citizens can expect an increase in taxes of about $2 per $100,000 of property value. The new facility is estimated to cost about $13 million, of which $10.46 million would be financed by general obligation bonds.

In addition to a new jail, the facility will house the sheriff's office and a consolidated dispatch center that will incorporate Enhanced 911 service. The building would be located on land owned by the county at the Airport West light-industrial park in Hailey.

Femling stressed that the current jail poses a safety risk to both inmates and jail employees and is becoming an increasingly serious liability.

The facility is cramped. Lighting and ventilation are poor. The ceilings leak, and the plumbing is on its last leg, Femling said. The hallways are so narrow that inmates can reach through their cell bars and grab guards, and the guards have even "had bodily fluids thrown at them."

The sheriff said that due to insufficient space female inmates are now being transported to Twin Falls, which is costing Blaine County taxpayers.

Critics of the bond have been spreading misinformation, Femling said, specifically that the new facility would be unnecessarily large and taxpayers would be overly burdened.

If there are size concerns regarding the new facility, Femling said it's that it might be too small. The new jail would include 44 beds for regular inmates and 20 beds for inmates in the work-release program. The current jail, which Femling said is typically filled to capacity, has 27 total beds. But the new facility could be expanded, if necessary.

In Hailey, where the average home price is $400,000, people can expect to pay about $8 a year in taxes to help pay off the bond, which Femling doesn't consider unreasonable.

Femling also noted that inmates are occasionally transferred to the Blaine County Jail as part of a cooperative arrangement with other counties, but the policy has never been abused.

Perhaps of greater concern, however, are possible lawsuits the conditions of the current facility could spawn. And, in addition to the deterioration of the jail, Femling said there are no medical facilities to meet the needs of certain inmates.

"What we don't want to do is lose a big lawsuit," he said. "And under these conditions there's no way to protect (ourselves) from lawsuits."

While state inspectors can't shut down the jail, a judge can, and so can the Blaine County Commission. But Femling thinks the plumbing, which is rotting, will likely force the jail to shut its doors first.

"We wouldn't be able to function anymore," Femling said.

And if that happens without a new facility in place all inmates will have to be shipped to other counties.

"That would could cost us millions, and the taxpayers will be the ones who will have to pay," Blaine County Commissioner Sarah Michael said.

All five cities in Blaine County have endorsed passage of the bond request to help finance construction of a new public safety facility.

Prior to the Feb. 6 special election, voting can take place through absentee ballots or in person at the Old County Courthouse in Hailey, weekdays between 9 a.m. and 5:45 p.m. Polling places have been changed for the special election, and voters should check or call the Elections Office at 788-5510 for current information.

All registered voters regardless of where they live in the county can vote on this issue.

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