The Ada County Commissioners took the first step toward a jail expansion, but where the money will come from is still an open question.
On Tuesday night, the three Ada County Commissioners held a public hearing and unanimously voted to start a construction fund to set aside cash to expand the Ada County Jail. This fund, which they started with $500,000, can be used to save money toward building capital projects and can only be opened every other year.
Overcrowding a growing problem
Ada County Sheriff Steve Barlett has been vocal for years about the need for an update to the jail, built in 1977. The jail on Barrister Dr. repeatedly failed recent inspections due to overcrowding and inmates slept on the floor due to a lack of bed space. The proposed expansion would add nearly 300 beds, an updated kitchen, a booking area, and other expansions to bring it up to modern code.
“The reason I stand in front of you today is the last time we added jail space was in 2014,” Bartlett told the commission. “All of our service industry, hospitals, convention centers and our homes are adding bed space every day. The one place that is also growing and we are not adding bed space is our Ada County jail.”
Each of the commissioners voted to establish the construction fund, but they noted this was not the end of the conversation on how it will be paid for. Commissioner Rod Beck said the tight timeline on when they could establish the fund pushed them to start this process now but they plan to hold a more in-depth conversation on whether they should go out for a bond or some other way to build it.
“This is for the start of a construction fund,” he said. “It is not for the ultimate financing of the jail. That will come later as we progress later with public discussion and public input.”
How to pay?
The former board, with a Democratic majority, put together a funding plan using certificates of participation through a lease with Zions Bank. This would have allowed them to finance the $38 million expansion without a public vote. BoiseDev told you earlier this month the commissioners decided to pursue other options.
Prior to his vote, Commissioner Ryan Davidson said BoiseDev’s report was “not 100% accurate.” He said the certificates of participation plan were not scrapped as we’d reported, but only paused. He then went on to say he had major misgivvings about the plan.
“What happened is the new administration came in after the election and was not necessarily supportive of the method of financing chosen for the jail and it was put on hold so the new commission could examine other ways of financing,” Davidson said. “For me personally, I was a little dubious on the constitutionality of the previous plan overall. Politically I favor bond elections where the public can weigh in on this type of financing.”
Although he voted for the construction fund, he still has not come out in support either for or against the need for an expansion.
Commissioner Kendra Kenyon, a member of the former board who pushed for the previous financing plan, called up Ada County’s Deputy Director of Operations Bruce Krisko to “talk about the price of doing nothing.”
In his presentation, Krisko said due to rising construction costs every year they wait to build the new jail costs increase roughly 5% or roughly $2.2 million. He said this estimate is conservative after COVID-19, due to the pandemic’s stress on supply chains and high demand on construction materials.
‘A scary spot’
Prior to the vote, the commissioners asked Barlett a range of questions about the jail population and how he’s keeping the numbers down in ways other than building a new jail.
Ada County, like other jails in the state, has been critical of the Idaho Department of Corrections in the past for having their inmates stay in county jails due to lack of room in state prisons. Bartlett said after a 2019 lawsuit he said the relationship is much better and the population of state prisons has dropped down significantly. As of Tuesday’s hearing, he said only 13 inmates await transport to state prison.
He said his office was awarded a grant a few years ago to study the problem of bail to try and make sure more eligible inmates are able to bond out. The county also employs alternative sentencing programs, like pretrial services, to try and cut down on the numbers of inmates. But, Bartlett said this isn’t enough to slow demand from a growing population and the backlog of cases leftover from when courts could not hold trials due to the pandemic.
The need won’t go away once the pandemic and the backlog dies down though, he said.
“If we don’t add additional critical bed space to our jail, we are going to have to start releasing people from our custody,” Bartlett said. “I’ve said that for years. That’s a scary spot to be in as your sheriff. We are not judges, we’re not prosecutors. I don’t’ want to be in the business of deciding who gets a jail bed and who doesn’t.”