Concerns about the quality and capacity of Canyon County’s jail have been a key, and divisive, issue for more than a decade.
After three failed attempts at getting voters to approve a bond for a new jail, two of the three county commissioners moved forward with a plan to expand the existing jail using money the county has on hand. The remaining commissioner, the sheriff and the officials in charge of the county’s finances oppose that plan.
This month’s primary election flipped the commission’s majority, but the new dynamic won’t take hold until January, when Nampa City Councilwoman Pam White is sworn in and joins Commissioner Tom Dale in opposing the expansion. That will leave Commissioner Craig Hanson out of office and Commissioner Steve Rule without an ally on the jail issue.
It will be an interesting seven months, those involved agree.
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Q: Was the primary a referendum on plans to expand the jail?
“Absolutely, without a doubt,” said Dale, who ran unopposed for his District 2 seat. “Essentially, elections are public opinions on ideas. Voters are saying this is a bad idea.”
Disagreement over the jail’s future was the dominant issue at community forums for commissioner and sheriff’s candidates, he said, and it was front and center in local media’s candidate questionnaires.
But Hanson, the only countywide candidate who advocated expansion, doesn’t think that stance was his political undoing.
“I don’t believe so. I don’t know what I believe with that vote,” said Hanson, who drew about 46 percent to White’s 54 percent of votes cast. “Canyon County, I always thought, was a conservative community.”
He thought voters would reject White’s bid for County Commission because of a perception that the city of Nampa was too free-spending during the years when Dale was mayor and White served on the council.
With no other party’s candidate on the November ballot, the District 3 race was decided by the May 17 GOP primary, barring a successful write-in challenge this fall.
Q: Will the election results slow down the expansion effort?
“That’s not what we’re hearing. What we hear is they’re going to step on the gas,” Canyon County Clerk Chris Yamamoto said.
Hanson agrees: “We’re just going at it full speed.”
The commission has been working on this for nine years. Some contracts are already in place or pending.
Canyon County Commissioner Steve Rule, who was not up for re-election this year
The expansion, initially pegged at $13.5 million, is now expected to cost up to $14.5 million. Outlay so far has been limited to design, in the ballpark of $150,000 to $200,000. Utility and other preparatory work is expected this summer and $1 million has been budgeted for that.
Building a new jail on county-owned land off Idaho 20/26 would likely cost between $45 million and $50 million and is the option favored by Dale, White, Yamamoto, Controller Zach Wagoner and Sheriff Kieran Donahue. Alternative sentencing programs to ease crowding and jail improvements spurred by lawsuits against the county have made the need for more space less urgent and provided time to save and plan for a new facility, they say.
Those lawsuits included two since 2009 by the American Civil Liberties Union, reacting to poor conditions in the jail. Earlier this month, the ACLU released the county from court oversight under a settlement that regulated jail practices and inmate numbers.
Q: Which plan is more fiscally responsible?
Both sides say theirs is.
Rule and Hanson say one great virtue of the expansion plan is that it can be done with funds on hand without asking county property owners to pay more taxes via a bond.
“I believe it’s the best thing for Canyon County, outside of somebody out there giving us $50 million and saying, ‘Build a new jail,’ ” said Hanson, a 20-year law enforcement veteran who was commander of the county’s jail during failed efforts to pass a $46 million jail bond in 2009 and 2010. An attempt to build a $72.5 million combination jail and justice center failed in 2006.
After those hard-fought campaigns, Hanson and Rule are convinced there is no public willingness to make that investment.
“I don’t see that happening — not in this decade, and probably not in the next,” Hanson said.
Dale advocates saving money over at least a few years and then coupling those amassed funds with another attempt at a bond, which would be smaller than past versions. He notes that voters rejected the last two bond attempts during a recession, and said the most important thing is to develop a strong strategic plan for the project.
Q: Can the county afford an expansion?
Opponents point to two cost concerns. Constructing additional space adjacent to the Dale Haile Detention Center would be inefficient and require more staff than a new jail designed for the county’s needs, they say. Dale estimated the additional operating cost at more than $2 million per year.
“Let’s save the money and do it right once,” White said.
And, the county tries to keep about a third more money in its justice fund and general fund than it plans to spend — for emergencies, unforeseen capital costs and other unexpected needs.
At current revenue levels, Yamamoto said, the county could spare $6 million toward jail construction without dropping below that desired 33 percent. Completing the full expansion would still leave a cushion, but of only 10 to 15 percent of the budget — “a dangerous level,” said Wagoner.
That goal is arbitrary, however, and Hanson and Rule feel confident the county could fully fund the expansion project with money on hand without endangering other priorities or requiring a tax increase.
“I don’t think 33 percent is needed,” Hanson said. “That argument has never been a point for myself nor Commissioner Rule to consider.”
Q: Will those opposed to the expansion act to stop it?
“We’re looking at options,” Wagoner said, noting that commissioners would have to amend the budget to spend anything on the project this fiscal year beyond the $1 million already budgeted for preparatory work. And expenditures for next fall would need to be included in the fiscal 2017 budget, which will be hammered out this summer.
Commissioners entered a contract with Engineered Structures Incorporated for a $13.5 million expansion project, but that contract will need to be amended to account for the increased cost. That could present an opportunity for changing the county’s course by determining sufficient funds are not available, Wagoner said.
Hanson said he expects opponents to erect “roadblocks” in the expansion plan but that they won’t prevent construction from beginning in late summer or fall.
I would really hate to see the money spent only to have nothing to show for it.
Canyon County Clerk Chris Yamamoto, who said he hopes the expansion plan derails before construction gets going
Q: What will happen in January, when Hanson leaves and White arrives?
Hanson said construction should be well underway before he leaves office in January, and he believes county residents will support continuing the project to provide needed jail space for the present and future.
But Dale said calling a halt to a partially constructed project could ultimately prove more prudent than putting more millions into a facility that leaders determine is the wrong choice. He and other opponents of the expansion pointed to Multnomah County, Ore.’s ill-fated Wapato Jail, which was built in 2004 but then deemed too costly to operate.
“Whatever level they are in come January,” Dale said, “I’d have to seriously consider pulling the plug on this.”
Kristin Rodine: 208-377-6447
Reporter Nishant Mohan contributed