Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Jail bond passes by comfortable margin

76 percent of voters approve funding plan for new Hailey facility

Express Staff Writer

Express photo by Willy Cook Ketchum City Councilwoman Terry Tracy casts her vote Tuesday at Ketchum City Hall. Photo by Willy Cook

After four attempts and 17 years, Blaine County citizens finally agreed it's time for a new jail. The county's proposed $10.46 million bond issue passed with a resounding 76 percent of the votes Tuesday.

The bond proposal, which needed a two-thirds majority to pass, only drew 12 percent of the county's 11,632 registered voters to the polls. But it was more than enough.

Of the approximately 1,400 people who turned out at the polls, 1,056 voted in favor of the bond and 337 voted against it.

"I'm overwhelmed by the margin that the voters passed it by," said County Commissioner Tom Bowman, who helped lead the charge for the bond election. "(Sheriff) Walt Femling pointed out to me that the school bonds don't even pass by that type of margin. I have a lot of gratitude to all the people who worked on this, and I'm humbled by the voters' confidence in us."

The bond passed in all five of the county's cities, except Carey, which was just short with 66.22 voting yes. The bond passed by the highest margin—84.66 percent—in Sun Valley. More than 78 percent of Ketchum voters and 72 percent of Hailey voters supported the bond. In Bellevue, where citizens have a history of shooting down bond measures, more than 74 percent of voters voted yes.

The new facility, which will house a new jail, sheriff's office and a consolidated dispatch center, is estimated to cost about $13 million, of which $10.46 million would be financed by general obligation bonds.

County residents can expect an increase in taxes of about $2 per $100,000 of property value. In Hailey, where the average home price is $400,000, that means an increase in property taxes of about $8 a year.

The new facility will be located on land owned by the county at the Airport West light-industrial park in Hailey. Construction will begin as soon as permits are secured. Bid packages will also be made available to the public soon.

"The county commissioners would like to extend our sincere appreciation to all of those who voted on the public safety facility bond election," a statement from the County Commission said. "We would also like to thank Sheriff Walt Femling and his staff for helping to educate the public on the deplorable conditions in the existing county offices and jail."

Femling has been fighting for a new public safety facility for 17 years. Previous bond elections to fund a new jail were defeated in 1990, 1995 and 1996.

The current facility, which was built in 1972 when the sheriff's office was at a fraction of its current size, is falling apart and poses a safety risk to employees and inmates alike, Femling has argued.

Hallways are narrow and cramped, allowing inmates to reach through cell bars and grab—or throw objects, including human waste—at guards. The tight space makes it difficult to respond to emergency situations, such as a sick or injured inmate, leaving the county vulnerable to lawsuits, Femling said.

Lighting and ventilation are poor, and the facility's plumbing is failing, he added.

As part of its public awareness campaign in the months leading up to the election, the sheriff's office offered free public tours of the current facility. Femling said the conditions made the bond an easy sell.

"Once they walk in there, they're horrified," he said about people who took tours of the jail.

Femling said when the plumbing does fail, which he thinks could occur soon, the jail will be forced to close its doors. If that were to occur without a new facility, all future prisoners would have been shipped out of the county to other facilities, and that would cost taxpayers millions.

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