Ada County’s newly elected commissioners are ditching a plan to finance a new jail without a vote.
Since Ada County Commissioners Rod Beck and Ryan Davidson started their terms in January, the county halted plans to pay for a $38 million jail pod expansion with certificates of participation through a lease with Zions Bank. This means in order to build an expansion to the jail, which has repeatedly failed inspections in recent years due to overcrowding, the county will either need to pay in cash or get a two-thirds majority approval from the voters.
None of the three commissioners, Republicans Davidson and Beck or Democrat Kendra Kenyon, responded to a BoiseDev request to comment directly on the decision to change the funding mechanism for the project.
‘Protecting staff time’
The previous funding structure for the jail was put together under Democratic Commissioners Diana Lachiondo and Kenyon prior to the Republicans regaining the majority in 2020. Using a certificate of participation would have allowed the county to pay for the project through a lease with the bank in annual installments. If a future commission decided not to pay the annual installment, they would still own the property but responsibility for the payment would have reverted to Zions Bank.
The prior administration of commissioners voted 2-1 to set up this funding mechanism on Oct. 6, 2020. The dissenting vote came from Republican Commissioner Patrick Malloy, who did not deny the need for a facility but wanted voters to approve the process for paying for it.
Lachiondo and Kenyon halted preparations for their funding strategy after the November election to let the new commissioners decide how to proceed. Prior to that, the county had paid law firm Hawley Troxell $45,900 for legal services related to financing the new jail.
“We were still moving through the design phase and we didn’t want to involve our lawyers doing a lot of complicated legal work before the new commissioners came on if they were going to scrap the financing plan,” Lachiondo said in a phone interview last week. “It was about protecting staff time.”
Design for the jail pod is still proceeding as planned. On March 4, the new commissioners signaled support for creating a construction fund to start setting aside money for a new jail. They did not mention the possibility of running a bond, but it would likely take years of saving before the locality could pay for a new jail without one.
“The Board is continuing to look at funding options, including use of a construction fund,” County spokeswoman Elizabeth Duncan said in an email earlier this month. “They will be having a public hearing later this month to address use of such a fund, as well as discussions about all financing options.”
A growth in population means more demand for beds in the jail.
Ada County Sheriff’s spokesman Patrick Orr said no matter how the jail is paid for, it is needed as quickly as possible. Sheriff Steve Bartlett told media in recent years the jail had inmates sleeping on the floor due to a lack of beds. The expansion would include 294 extra beds, a larger kitchen, booking space and a new transfer area.
“Our jail is overcrowded,” Orr said. “We are maxed out on bed space. We need more food storage space, and our inmate-staffed kitchen and laundry areas are at the absolute limit on what they can manage each day. Ada County’s population growth rages on unabated. We are rapidly running out of room.”
In the meantime, Orr said the Sheriff’s office will continue to use Pretrial and Alternative Sentencing programs, like drug court, to help keep the population down and ensure they’re housing people awaiting trial who are most likely a risk to public safety.
Ada County isn’t the only jail in the Treasure Valley struggling with space. Canyon County’s jail in Caldwell has repeatedly failed inspections due to overcrowding and voters have turned down four bonds to replace it. It was under federal court oversight for several years after a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union sued over conditions it called “indecent, cruel and inhumane.”