POCATELLO — Bannock County has made two failed attempts during the past five years to get the public to approve a sizable bond funding a major addition to its severely overcrowded jail.
Convinced the need has become so pressing that expansion can’t be put off for much longer, the county has started investigating options for a scaled-back jail project — possibly using a type of lease structured to avoid the need for a public bond referendum.
The Bannock County Commission recently submitted a request for proposals seeking an underwriter to facilitate non-appropriations leasing of up to $8 million to fund a jail expansion. Commissioner Terrel Tovey anticipates the actual cost will come in at between $4 million and $5 million.
Non-appropriations leasing is the same funding mechanism the City of Chubbuck is pursuing to cover more than $15 million in planned municipal construction projects, including a new city hall.
State law requires taxing bodies to get approval from a two-thirds majority of voters to pass a bond and take on long-term debt. Non-appropriations leases, however, are renewed annually, thereby avoiding any long-term debt and the need for a vote. The county would acquire an unencumbered title at the end of the lease period.
Tovey emphasized it’s just one of a few options under consideration to see the expansion to fruition. The county may still determine a bond is the best option — albeit for significantly less than the amounts voters previously rejected.
In 2016, voters shot down an $18 million bond; they rejected a $16 million bond by just 43 votes in 2017.
Tovey said it’s also possible the county may find internal funding to cover the expansion or use a combination of a reduced non-appropriations lease plus internal funding. Regardless of which funding approach is ultimately chosen, the commission’s strong preference is to fund the expansion by making budgetary cuts as opposed to adding to residents’ tax burdens, Tovey said.
The jail, located at 5800 S. Fifth Ave., was built in 1993. Tovey points out the 1990 U.S. Census placed the county’s population at 66,241. The county’s population was estimated at more than 85,000 as of 2017.
“We still hold our (jail) validation, but we don’t know for how much longer because we are at capacity,” Tovey said.
Tovey believes non-appropriations leasing is a good fit for projects in the range of $5 million or less, and the current plan evidences county leaders listened to the voters who rejected the jail bonds.
“We’re not looking at some big $20 million thing. We’re looking at what can we minimally do,” Tovey said, explaining the county will pursue the lowest-cost option to meet the minimum state standards. “The citizens don’t want a big jail, so we’re going to look at the bare minimum of what we can do.”
Tovey said the jail overcrowding has been exacerbated by an “unfunded state mandate.”
“It’s amazing how many prisoners are waiting to go to Boise to the state penitentiary, but the state leaves them here because they don’t have any room,” Tovey said.
The American Civil Liberties Union contacted Bannock County Sheriff Lorin Nielsen last year to voice concerns about the state of the jail. Nielsen said the organization pointed out that the county’s inmates are all innocent until proven guilty and are entitled to humane treatment. He said the ACLU hasn’t filed suit only because it’s giving the county time to address the problems.
Currently, Nielsen said about 25 of his inmates are being housed in other jails.
“Last year, the budget for that was $400,000,” Nielsen said.
Nielsen remembers when the jail had a single cell devoted to felony suspects. Nowadays, more than 75 precent of inmates are felons, and suspects involved in misdemeanor crimes are typically cited and released, he said.
Even when he has some available beds, he often can’t use them. He explained inmates charged with the most serious crimes can’t be intermingled with low-classification offenders. Men and women must also be separated.
“Our female crimes have gone sky high,” Nielsen said.
In the long term, Nielsen argues the best solution to the problem will be for the state Legislature to reconsider the current funding system, which he believes is overly reliant on property taxes.
“The political reality is with the pressures on property taxes, which represent the only funding the counties have, we realistically don’t feel that a bond No. 1 would pass and No. 2 would really be the right way to go,” Nielsen said. “We’ve been looking at all kinds of different options.”