No 'win-win' in jail dilemma

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

"There's no win-win about any of this," said Earl McNutt, chairman of the Red Willow County Commissioners during Monday's meeting about a major county undertaking.

What he was talking about was the legal requirement for the county to house prisoners, a duty that has been performed in a temporary way since 1983, when it was deemed impractical for the county to remodel the old county jail to bring it up to modern standards.

Since then, the county has been using the City of McCook's "96-hour holding facility" for short-term prisoners, and shipping the rest to jails in neighboring counties.

Now that option may even be coming to an end.

The reason is that the Public Safety Center, which houses the holding cells, will be closed when the McCook police and fire departments move into the new $4.6 million city building, which will also house city offices, on the former West Ward Elementary School lot across from Memorial Auditorium.

Without the holding cells, which are only slightly better than the old cells abandoned in 1983, the sheriff's office will have to provide officers and cars 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to transport prisoners out of town.

A new jail will require 24/7 staffing as well, but won't wear out as many cars, burn as much gasoline or put as many prisoners and officers in danger on the highways -- the fact eliciting McNutt's observation.

Tonight, at 7 o'clock, Red Willow County's jail task force, meeting in the commissioners' room on the third floor of the courthouse, will discuss options ranging from $6.7 million for a jail connected to the courthouse, down to $3.8 million for a new "hold and transport" facility little better than what we have now.

The favorite option seems to be a $5.1 million plan for a new jail on the courthouse block, unconnected to the courthouse itself.

If that is chosen, McCook taxpayers will have spent $4.6 million for a new city building, plus most of the cost of a new $5.1 million county jail, for a total of $9.7 million.

In 2006, voters turned down a $5.1 million plan for a combined city-county building, including a jail.

City voters did have a chance to turn down the new city building, now ready to be built, but that was only because the City Council chose to give them the opportunity to vote.

By law, the council didn't have to do that because of the level of spending; and neither do the County Commissioners have to take a new jail to the voters.

Jails are notoriously hard to sell to the voters, and if the truth be known, that might have been the reason the combination plan didn't pass.

In hindsight, however, it looks to have been a real bargain.

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