Despite extra efforts to communicate with voters about the need for a new jail, which included paying a marketing consultant $3,500 a month to promote outreach, Canyon County still finds itself fighting a losing battle.
With only about 15 percent of registered voters turning out Tuesday, those who did show up made their point clear: They don’t want to pay for a new jail.
The $187 million bond request that was on the ballot to pay for construction of a facility that would more than double the jail’s capacity received only 34.03 percent of the vote (4,807 votes). The other 9,318 people who voted rejected a bond that would have annually cost residents $94.43 per $100,000 of taxable property value.
The bond needed two-thirds approval to pass, so it was nowhere close.
The Canyon County Board of Commissioners made extra efforts this year to educate voters, holding six town halls on the subject, creating a jail information website and hiring independent consultant Ysabel Bilbao to do outreach.
Sheriff Kieran Donahue said in a statement that he was proud of the work his office has conducted with the help of Bilbao.
“These efforts certainly helped educate our citizens about the need for a new jail and the facts pertaining to the operation of the jail in Canyon County,” Donahue said. “The results were obviously disappointing, but that is the reality, and it also points to the fact that the Legislature of Idaho needs to seriously explore a local option tax for counties to give some much-needed tax relief to property owners.”
Bilbao, previously the spokeswoman for Gov. Brad Little’s campaign, has her contract expire at the end of May.
Commissioners, sheriff react to failed bond
Commissioners Pam White and Tom Dale supported the bond, while Commissioner Leslie Van Beek did not. Asked about the future of the jail now, Dale said simply, “We need a new one.”
“The need has not gone away and it’s only grown in the last 10 years,” Dale told the Statesman on Wednesday. “We will continue to work with stakeholders and try to see if there are other options to look at.”
The county already owns property on U.S. 20/26 where commissioners had hoped to build a 1,055-bed jail. Without the bond, it’s unclear how jail construction could possibly be funded. Tuesday’s vote marked the fourth time Canyon County residents have been asked to pay for a new facility.
The Concerned Citizens of Canyon County, a group that opposed the bond, has argued that the county’s proposed jail was too big and too expensive for taxpayers to support.
Ron Harriman, chairman of the group, said the commission never should have put the bond on the ballot. But he acknowledges that there is a need for a new jail, just not one as large as what they asked for Tuesday.
“We as a committee do not intend to walk away from the problem,” Harriman said. “We will try to work with the county commissioners or work around the county commissioners to find a solution.”
Harriman said they plan to ask that the commissioners appoint an advisory group, similar to a planning and zoning commission, of at least six people who are experts on the subject to advise the county on how to proceed.
Dale said he hopes to look at why voters overwhelmingly denied the project.
“Is it simply that they don’t want to pay for this through property taxes, or that more education is needed?” he said.
White and Dale said it’s too early to say whether the commission will try for another bond in November’s election.
Donahue said his office will continue to work with officials within the judicial system and other stakeholders to “try to maintain our inmate population within the limited constraints of” the jail.
“Meantime, people who should be in jail will continue to be let out due to lack of space, and the need for a new jail will only continue to grow,” he said. “That said, I think it’s important to note that I do not have the statutory authority to build a building or run a jail bond. Those responsibilities lie solely with the Board of County Commissioners.”
White also told the Statesman on Wednesday that they were discussing alternative options, including the suggestion of building a regional jail.
“This is not just a Canyon County problem,” White said. “This is nationwide jail problem.”
White said he was especially disappointed with the turnout.
“Eighty-five percent of the voters didn’t use their vote to make a difference,” White told the Statesman. “So ... people have to realize and understand that it’s vital that they participate.”
Van Beek told the Statesman that she voted against the bond on Tuesday. She said there were consistent questions at all six of the town halls, and she looks forward to working toward answering them.
Van Beek said she does believe that the county needs a new jail, but two-thirds of voters made clear this bond was not the right answer.
“We need to become more unified and do an internal evaluation about where the bottlenecks were at,” Van Beek said. “We got some feedback and it opens the door to more creative thinking.”
What’s next for the Canyon County jail?
By the end of the summer, the county will have some secure jail trailers installed, which should temporarily alleviate overcrowding, especially for female inmates. The solution was previously approved by the commission and will cost the county roughly $4.5 million. The trailers could hold up to 122 single-cell beds for female inmates.
County spokesman Joe Decker confirmed that the trailer installation has been delayed due to inspection problems, and he anticipates that they will be installed by August or September. The county has only 77 beds for female inmates and is regularly forced to house women out of county, at an additional expense.
The trailers will be installed in the parking lot of the existing Dale G. Haile Detention Center in Caldwell.
As of Wednesday morning, the Canyon County jail was at 91.4 percent of capacity, well above the sheriff’s goal of keeping it at 80 percent. Meanwhile, 28 inmates were housed in other counties.
Regardless of how the problematic jail is addressed, Dale said he hopes to keep the issue a priority.
“Bottom line, I personally believe we need to keep this issue front and center,” Dale said.