Canyon County

Caldwell council rejects expanding Canyon County jail, but appeal is likely

Inmates in the women’s detention area of the Canyon County jail in May 2016.
Inmates in the women’s detention area of the Canyon County jail in May 2016. Idaho Statesman file

The struggle between Canyon County officials over contrasting visions for the Canyon County jail came to a head Monday in the chambers of another local government — the Caldwell City Council.

After a public hearing that stretched nearly three hours, council members voted 5 to 1 to uphold the decision of Caldwell’s planning commission to reject a special-use permit that would have allowed construction to start on an addition to the existing county jail near downtown Caldwell.

“I think they made the right decision, and I hope we can put this to a rest and move toward a true strategic plan to meet our jail needs in the future,” said Commissioner Tom Dale, a jail-expansion opponent who is expected to become commission chairman once Commissioner Craig Hanson’s seat changes hands early next year.

Hanson was defeated in the GOP primary by Pam White and will step down in January. He said he expects Canyon County will appeal Monday’s vote, but commissioners will need to discuss it before making a decision. Commission Chairman Steve Rule, who with Hanson makes up the current majority in favor of expansion, said earlier Monday that a City Council denial of the permit would likely be appealed to a judge.

It is unclear how long the appeal process would take, but time is a looming factor: Dale and White have said they’ll halt the project in January even if construction starts on the site this fall. Although some utility work and other site preparation has already been done, construction could not begin without a building permit.

City Councilman Rob Hopper cast the dissenting vote. He said the expansion plan seems sound, but the squabbling by county officials and rush to push a plan through are unseemly.

“I’m somewhat appalled,” Hopper said, that the disagreement among commissioners and other county officials ended up in council chambers, forcing “the city of Caldwell to serve as a referee. ... You’d think something this important deserves a little more unity.”

Although Rule and the project architect stressed that the issue before the council was land use, not politics, Hopper said, “pushing this through urgently made this a political decision. ... That’s not serving a need, that’s serving a political agenda.”

Council members who voted to deny the permit said the deciding factors included incompatibility with the neighborhood and safety issues raised by increased parking and traffic near homes. Councilman Dennis Callsen, who made the motion, said he also was concerned about the prospect of the project beginning, but not finishing.

“This is not a land-use issue. This is a timing issue,” County Clerk Chris Yamamoto told the council. “I don’t want a hole in the ground.”

Rule said comments about a hole in the ground and Dale and White’s vows to shut down the project constitute threats and “spin” to get the city to turn against the expansion idea.

In the past, both he and Hanson have advocated building a big new jail on county-owned land off U.S. 20-26 near Caldwell’s northern limit. Hanson, who ran the jail when he was a captain with the sheriff’s office, said he still personally supports that idea. But three failed efforts to pass a jail bond in the past decade — including one for a more central complex off Cleveland Boulevard — convinced them that a lower-cost, quicker solution was needed.

Myla Wood, one of three Caldwell residents unaffiliated with the project who signed up to advocate for it, agreed. She called the expansion a “common-sense alternative.”

The estimated expansion cost of $14.5 million is tough for taxpayers to swallow, Wood said, but “it’s certainly better than a $50 million new facility.”

Rule, who has called the expansion “by far the most tax-accountable plan we have ever put forward,” said it would be built with available funds over the next two fiscal years.

“I believe this is the right thing at this time,” Rule told the City Council. “We’ve tried other, better, right things, and they wouldn’t pass muster.”

Sheriff Donahue said the plans developed for the jail addition are “good jail design (but) absolutely a bad location.” He said the existing jail was badly designed, and “it’s never been adequate.”

Donahue advocates vacating the jail property and moving the sheriff’s office and jail to a new, purpose-built complex. With efficient design, he said, the sheriff’s office could operate the envisioned new jail with existing staff. But adding on to the existing jail would require major staffing increases at an annual cost of more than $3 million, he said.

And although the expansion plan would add beds, they wouldn’t be sufficient to meet the county’s needs, particularly for housing violent offenders and women.

“This isn’t a 15-year plan,” Donahue said, referring to proponents’ estimates of how long the expanded jail would meet the county’s needs. “This is a 15-minute plan.”

City staff outlined three choices for the council for ruling on the county’s appeal: overturn the planning commission’s permit denial, uphold the denial, or grant the permit with an added condition — opposed by the county — to not issue a building permit until January.

Caldwell resident Paul Alldredge suggested the council table the permit request until January “to mitigate the push and pull.” But the council decided to bring the issue to a vote immediately after the hearing.

No meeting has been scheduled yet for commissioners to discuss a possible appeal of the council decision.

Kristin Rodine: 208-377-6447