Big doubts about big jail
Commission hopefuls mull need for new $53 million facility.
By Cara Froedge Jackson Hole, Wyo.
August 6, 2008
The chairman of a committee that recommended construction of a $53 million justice center this week defended the project even as most of the candidates running for county commission expressed skepticism about it.
Democrats and Republicans eyeing the two seats on the board say the facility just seems too large and too expensive for the county’s needs. Incumbents Leland Christensen and Andy Schwartz are bound by law from speaking for or against the facility because they are elected officials.
“This is a community decision,” Christensen said. “I voted to put it on the ballot so the community can decide.”
Jail committee chairman Bruce Hawtin said his group considered breaking the project down to only a jail – estimated to cost $19 million. But the committee decided that the other parts of the proposal, including building 38,100 square feet of office at a cost of $17 million, also were necessary, if not immediately needed. (Today the agencies operate in 9,800 square feet, not counting dispatch.) Another $6 million would be earmarked for a parking structure.
The committee had to be convinced that the justice center was a viable project, he said, and it was. The group debated whether to break the complex up, perhaps asking voters to fund a jail first, then offices and other aspects later. But the committee decided to do the project all at once.
“It got pretty complicated and spread out over many, many years,” he said of the alternatives to the $53 million proposal.
Voters go to the polls Aug. 12 to decide if the 1 percent sales tax should be imposed to fund the project. In addition to the jail, offices and parking, another $4 million dollars would be spent moving the federal courthouse. A site has yet to be secured.
Furnishings and environmental certification would cost another $4.6 million. Cost of the center includes demolition of the existing jail and social services building.
Construction of the center would be a boon to county and town bureaucracies, which would move into space vacated by police and sheriff’s departments. In the Teton County Courthouse, 6,900 square feet would become available to prosecutors and court officials. In Jackson Town Hall, 3,932 square feet would open up for planners and other town employees.
While most of the candidates running for Teton County commissioner say they are wary of a proposal to build a $53 million justice center, the chairman of the committee that recommended the project defended its size and myriad facets.
County commission chairman Andy Schwartz agreed with Christensen that his role was to put the item before voters. If approved, the tax would be imposed for an estimated five years to raise the necessary funds.
Crowding is said to be the reason for expanding the 45-bed lockup. While she does see overcrowding as a problem, Democratic commission candidate Claire Fuller said she thinks the jail could be renovated rather than rebuilt.
“I’d like to see if it’s possible to do it with the existing structure, using what is there, rather than start all over,” she said.
Fuller also said the 102-bed proposal seems too large for the county’s needs in light of a 2003 study recommending 80 beds.
Another option, she said, would be to build a separate facility for alcohol-related offenses, which made up about 40 percent of booking charges between 2001 and June 2008.
“It does seem like maybe there could be two facilities, a lower-tech facility for those types of things,” Fuller said.
The other jail, perhaps a renovated version of the existing one, could be used for higher-security inmates given longer sentences, she said.
Sheriff Bob Zimmer said the needs has grown from 80 to 102 beds in the five years since the study was complete. He further said the $53 million facility incorporates all the needs.
“We can’t do that for $40 million,” he said. “I’d love to, but that’s not what the bill came in at.”
Jail committee chairman Hawtin said the existing jail is too old and “awful” to renovate. The price tag for the new justice center, he said, is not out of line with what other jail, office facilities and parking structures cost.
“Jails themselves are expensive,” Hawtin said. Further, the cost of building in Jackson Hole is expensive.
The group also looked at other sites out in the county, and land cost would have been several million dollars, he said.
Plus, those locations would create “incredible” traffic, he said.
Additionally, the jail is bigger than necessary because it’s being built for the future, he said.
“I’m really comfortable this is being designed for the next 20 years,” Hawtin said. “I think it’s a very smart thing to do.”
Republican commission candidate Kim Sturlin said he understands that, with growth, crime will increase and so will arrests. Yet Sturlin said he doesn’t understand why the justice center needs to cost so much. He’d rather research alternatives such as retrofitting this jail.
Republican Bob Morris said he could support the justice center if deputies and officers don’t jail people for simple possession of marijuana.
Republican Rick Roth also said jail populations could be reduced if officers and deputies stopped arresting people for small amounts of marijuana and had illegal immigrants picked up and deported.
“Who cares if they pay their fine?” Roth wrote in an e-mail about undocumented foreign workers. “They are a drain on our economy.”
Roth said he’s unconvinced of any need to triple the jail’s size.
“I think the current jail is just fine,” he wrote. “Life inside for inmates should suck. I hope it does. Maybe they will think twice before they break the law in Teton County again.”
Roth said if he was in charge, inmates would be eating military ready-to-eat meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner rather than cookies, which were featured in a News&Guide photograph July 30. “The jail is looking more like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood every day,” Roth wrote.
Finally, Roth said every inmate should be placed on work detail, the only exception being for people who are on life support. Inmates should be up awake at 5 a.m. and out working by 7 a.m. Bedtime would be 9 p.m.
“If they try to escape, shoot ’em with a Taser,” Roth wrote.
Democrat Brian Grubb said he doesn’t think the proposal is ready for success.
“I don’t think it was packaged correctly,” Grubb said. “I think this community might be more comfortable with an incremental approach to the problem.” For example, perhaps the town and county could built a new jail first, then turn their attention to offices.
Grubb said he thinks it’s more appropriate to finish revising the Jackson/Teton County Comprehensive Plan before proceeding with the justice center.
“The role of the comprehensive plan is to decide what our needs are and where these facilities should be located,” he said. “To look at this jail situation in the context of one block in downtown Jackson, I think that’s going a disservice to the community.”