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Wednesday, March 17, 2004


County to set advisory vote on jail proposal

Facility would cost $10 million

"I think the important thing is that we’re going to get the public involved to inform them and get them involved in this issue."

— SARAH MICHAEL, Blaine County commissioner

Express Staff Writer

Blaine County Commissioners on Monday informally agreed to ask voters in November what they think about building a new $10 million Blaine County Jail.

The vote would be a non-binding advisory issue and would not include a proposal to raise taxes, said Blaine County Commissioner Sarah Michael. Commissioners said they would hold a series of informational meetings on the issue this summer to try to capture the public’s interest and to answer questions.

"I think the important thing is that we’re going to get the public involved to inform them and get them involved in this issue," Michael said.

Though nothing is set in stone, the county is considering using a 4.3-acre property in the Airport West subdivision that it bought specifically for a jail site.

Expanding the existing site would take away from the green space between the Old Blaine County Courthouse and the sheriff’s office, and it would also keep the jail in a predominately residential portion of Hailey, Commissioner Dennis Wright said.

The current jail has been considered overcrowded and archaic for at least a decade. However, county voters have balked at funding a new one in three revenue bond elections. In 1995, the county came within 18 votes of obtaining the necessary two-thirds majority to approve a $6.9 million jail bond issue.

This time, Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling said he hopes to build an approximately 75-bed facility with funds already available. Michael said that may be possible because the county is completing construction of its new courthouse annex and may have extra funds available with that project’s completion.

"I do not want to raise property taxes for this," Femling told commissioners.

The 28-bed existing facility houses defendants awaiting trial and people sentenced to jail time for crimes not serious enough to warrant incarceration in the state penitentiary. A 20-bed annex in the old Power Engineers building on Airport Way houses minimum-security inmates let out during the day on work release.

Inadequacies in the current jail were brought to light in the 1980s by two lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union. Femling said that since then, continuing population growth and a deteriorating building have made the need for a new facility even more acute.

In January 2003, commissioners authorized Femling to undertake a study on a new facility. The study, completed in November, highlighted a number of inadequacies at the existing facility.

Blaine County’s average jail populations are projected to increase from roughly 30 inmates to 44 inmates by 2025. That means 55 beds would be needed for projected peak populations, and 66 beds would be needed for appropriate government classifications.

Additionally, Femling has said that jailers have a difficult time monitoring inmates in the labyrinthine layout of the current jail. A modern facility would permit jailers to see all of the cells from a central location.

The current jail also does not have space for female inmates, Femling said. Because men and women must be housed separately, just one female can take up an entire cell meant for several people.

There is also inadequate space for programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, Femling said.

"These are like dog kennels that we keep people in," Femling said. "And our building is falling apart. We’re going to keep throwing money at an inadequate facility."

"Another major shortcoming for this facility is that we don’t have any room for juveniles," Wright said.

Though Michael pushed for an advisory vote in May, Wright and Commissioner Mary Ann Mix said that would not give voters enough time to become acquainted with the proposal.

"It was perceived as too short of a time span to educate the public," Wright said. "I think there was also the possible perception that we’d be trying to shove something down the public’s throat."

The Blaine County Jail, built in 1972, is housed in the Blaine County Sheriff’s Office.


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