The most heated moment during Canyon County’s budget hearing for fiscal 2017 came at its end, when the county clerk stormed out of the room.
“If there’s not one person in this room in favor of this thing,” Chris Yamamoto said as he walked away, “why the hell do we have these meetings?”
He referred to a plan to expand the aging Canyon County Jail. That hotly debated expansion represents $6.78 million of the $86.1 million budget and, according to Yamamoto and the county controller, is the prime reason the budget calls for a sizable property tax increase, including “foregone” taxing authority that accumulated, unused, in the past few years.
Yamamoto and Controller Zach Wagoner had suggested an $81.3 million budget — without funding for the jail project — that would not have required the tax increase.
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Commissioners Steve Rule and Craig Hanson voted to approve a 2017 tax levy of $42.98 million, including about $2.8 million in tax increases foregone in previous years. The levy is $4.7 million higher than the current year’s. Commissioner Tom Dale opposed that motion, as well as the subsequent vote on including the foregone tax money.
“I understand it’s allowed by statute. It doesn’t make it morally right,” said Wayne Hoffman, a Nampa resident and leader of the conservative Idaho Freedom Foundation.
All 11 people who testified about the 2017 operating budget Wednesday opposed the tax increase and most criticized the jail expansion plan, saying the county should wait to build a new, purpose-built jail on county-owned land off Idaho 20/26.
“The only two people who are for it are you two guys, and you’re on your way out,” said Tony Navratil, nodding toward Hanson, a former jail captain who was defeated in the May GOP primary and leaves office in January. Then he turned his attention to Rule, who is not running for a fifth term in 2018: “And you will be soon, I guess.”
The pro-expansion majority on the three-member commission will disappear in January, when Pam White takes Hanson's seat and joins Dale and other county elected officials in opposing the plan
Dale's vow to shut down the project come January was among the factors the Caldwell Planning and Zoning Commission considered before voting Aug. 9 not to grant a conditional use permit for the project. Commissioners voted 2-to-1 Tuesday to appeal that decision to the City Council, but opponents say that the final outcome of that issue won't be determined in time to make any real progress on the project.
And all three commissioners voted Wednesday morning to spend $57,000 on a 90-day contract with consultants to weigh the county’s choices: jail expansion or a new jail.
Rule, who has championed the expansion, isn’t fazed by the time frame or the fact that his soon will be a minority voice. He said Wednesday that the expansion will happen and that it’s the most responsible and frugal way to meet the county’s jail needs.
But he also said he's willing to change his stance if the consultant's report doesn't favor expansion.
"I know this is the best plan ... but if Carter Goble Lee comes back and says it isn't, I'll be first person to step aside," Rule said.
Rule said he has fought for a solution to the county's jail woes through three failed bond measures to build a new jail, and he has become convinced that the expansion — total cost around $14 million —- will better serve taxpayers than building a new jail, with an estimated price tag around $50 million.
But he said he’s willing to listen to the consultants.
“I know this is the best plan ... but if (consulting firm) Carter Goble Lee comes back and says it isn’t, I’ll be the first person to step aside,” Rule said.
At least one taxpayer at Wednesday’s hearing said the county should go back to the voters before increasing taxes for the jail, even in a lower-cost version.
The county has already spent about $1.2 million toward the expansion plan, with most of that going for planning, design and other contractor expenses, Wagoner said. Utility work to prepare the site continued Wednesday in the alley between the existing jail and the county elections office.
Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue argues that the expansion plan throws money at an inadequate facility, adding inmate space in an inefficient way that would require more than 40 new employees, at a cost of around $3 million per year. And he said it would not address the county’s most pressing jail space needs, for female inmates and violent offenders.
Donahue said the purpose-built jail designed for the Idaho 20/26 site would meet the county’s needs for decades and could be staffed at existing levels because of its design. He and other advocates say alternative sentencing programs and jail improvements spurred by lawsuits against the county have made the need for more space less urgent and provided time to save for a new facility.
About 30 people who attended the Canyon County budget hearing weren’t there to address the budget. They were there to urge commissioners to take action against the leadership of the West Valley Humane Society, which leases the county-owned animal shelter for a nominal fee and receives operating funds from the county and local cities. They alleged mismanagement and inhumane treatment of animals.
Many are part of the Bunny Project, mobilized by the death of a dog named Bunny who was euthanized at the shelter despite her owner’s efforts to find and recover her. Kyla Westerberg, the daughter of Bunny’s owner, urged commissioners to rethink the county’s contract with West Valley, and Anna DeVore urged them to pay closer attention to shelter operations.
Commission Chairman Steve Rule did not address the issue during the hearing but said earlier Wednesday that the shelter has an independent board and that commissioners don’t have the authority “to go in and manage that board.”