It is with some reluctance that we recommend voters in Canyon County vote against a $187 million bond to pay for a new county jail.
This editorial board has toured the current county jail, and we find it to be inadequate, dangerous, outdated, too small, poorly designed and substandard for working conditions. We would like to see the whole thing torn down, never to be seen again.
Canyon County should build a new jail that is efficient, modern and has enough capacity to house the inmates who have been sentenced to jail and those who are awaiting a court hearing or trial. We want a jail that is large enough so that prosecutors and judges don’t have to decide who to let free and that law enforcement don’t have to decide whether to execute an arrest warrant, knowing that there’s no room at the jail.
We also want to see a jail that provides opportunities to inmates to take classes, get drug and alcohol rehabilitation and mental health counseling.
All of that might sound like we support the jail bond proposal.
Unfortunately, we think the bond proposal of $187 million ($262 million when you include interest payments) and 1,055 beds is just too big, too much, too expensive.
Perhaps even more importantly, we believe the proposal as it stands, has not been properly vetted, scrutinized and prosecuted.
The 1,055-bed, $187 million proposal before us was arrived at through a consultant’s study and presented to the county commissioners. The county commissioners, with little to no public input and little to no pushback or questioning, accepted the study and presented it to the voters.
In the proceeding months, a group of citizens researched the matter and put together their own competing proposal of what to do about the current jail situation. This editorial board has heard their proposal. Just as we cannot endorse the bond proposal, neither can we support the proposal from the citizens group. Their proposal has plenty of flaws and drawbacks.
However, their proposal has plenty of positives and important points to consider, including concerns about the wisdom of overbuilding the jail, the operating costs of the new jail, the number of cells vs. dormitory space, the final cost per bed, alternatives to jail and more.
We’re not going to get into all of the details here, and we’re certainly not endorsing the citizens group’s proposal.
Our main concern here is that this discussion, these considerations and this debate over some of the finer points never happened before county commissioners voted to put the bond before the voters. Had the commissioners sought out and received input, had a series of discussions about the finer points, they might have been able to persuade people that a 1,055-bed, $187 million jail was the right solution. They might have had an opportunity to refute some of these concerns, allayed some of these fears and disputed some of the assumptions being made.
Or, heaven forbid, they might have come to the conclusion that we can live with what we’ve got with some modifications for a little bit of time while the county saves up some money to make a down payment on a new jail. They might have come to a compromise on the size of the jail, recognizing that increasing alternative sentencing, mental health counseling and drug and alcohol rehabilitation might actually mean a need for only 700 or 800 beds, at a much lower cost.
Combined, they might have gotten buy-in from a supermajority of residents to vote for a jail bond, knowing that county officials reached out, sought public input, looked for alternative solutions and tried as hard as they could to reduce the impact on taxpayers.
Instead, they basically took a Cadillac plan that was handed to them, gave it a stamp of approval and told the voters, “Trust us.”
And now, instead of working with voters to come up with a plan, the county is engaged in an effort to sell the plan.
We’re also sensitive to the argument that “it’s only $94 per year.” That figure is based on $100,000 of taxable property value. But as we’re seeing, property values are rising rapidly, with the median home sales price at around $230,000 right now and climbing. Plus, the bond will be paid off over 20 years, so house values — and the consequent tax bill — likely will continue to rise over the next 20 years. In addition, it’s not just $94 for the jail; tax bills are made up of a little bit for Vallivue school district, a little bit for the Nampa wastewater treatment plant, a supplemental levy for this school district, a bond for a new middle school for that school district, etc. Pretty soon, you’re talking about a lot of money coming due on the backs of individual homeowners.
Finally, we recognize that justice reform would help alleviate some of these problems, but much of that is up to the state to fix and to a great extent, the county’s hands are tied. But we can’t help but wonder what the county could do with $187 million if put toward expanding such programs as work release, job training, GED classes, mental health counseling, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, alternative sentencing, veterans court, drug court and more.
We’re not naïve enough to believe that such measures would eliminate the need for a jail, but we’re also not cynical enough to believe that such measures wouldn’t make a dent in the jail population.
In the end, we believe there’s a better proposal than simply building a massive, super-expensive county jail. But to get to that proposal that works for everyone, it’s going to require a thorough process that’s open to the public, with lots of ideas — yes, with some ideas that will get shot down — and lots of public input, questions and answers.
Until then, we cannot endorse the jail bond as it is proposed.