"We don't want to rush us into a situation that creates a financial burden for future generations," commission chairman Earl McNutt said. "In all reality, the bottom line is, we need to explore all the options."
McNutt was talking about the possibility of commissioners making the ultimate decision about building a jail, and the flip side of the coin, asking voters whether or not they want to finance a jail. "Some people have asked us for the opportunity to vote on this," he said late Wednesday morning.
According to state law No. 47-119.01, it is ultimately the county's responsibility to incarcerate any prisoner or anyone arrested within the county, including arrests made by City of McCook law enforcement officers within the city of McCook.
Since 1982, when Red Willow County closed its jail (in the existing sheriff's office behind the courthouse) because it did not meet state jail standards, the county has complied with state law by contracting with and transporting prisoners to neighboring jail facilities or housing them for up to 96 hours (four days) in the city's holding cells (and then transporting them, if necessary).
Because the city is building a new municipal building without holding cells -- approved by city voters in November 2010 -- commissioners have been wrangling with how the county will continue to comply with state law regarding the housing of prisoners.
It's not the first time the subject's come up -- commissioners and jail task force committees have studied the issue seriously since early 2004.
Voters said "no" to a combined city-county emergency center and jail in November 2006, so the county continued its holding cell-transport approach.
Then because plans for the new city building include no cells of any kind and the building's under construction and projected to open in October 2012, the county reinstated a jail study committee whose recommendation in September 2011 was to build "Option IA," a 24-bed jail with room for sheriff's offices. It is expandable to 36 beds and designed so that it can be attached to the courthouse. Construction costs are estimated at $5,105,830, and annual payments would be about $340,000 a year for 20 years.
The city plans to to move into its new municipal building in October and close its holding cell facility at that time.
At the commissioners' meeting Monday morning, commissioners agreed that Sheriff Gene Mahon should hire a part-time jailer now and make that position full-time on July 1; hire a full-time jail supervisor on July 1; and budget for a third jailer, all in preparation for the October closing of the city's cells. In the interim, the new hirees can help with prisoner transport.
The sheriff told commissioners that the Nebraska Department of Corrections Work Ethic Camp in McCook is conducting jailer training now, and that it will be less expensive to have the training done here than to send trainees to the Nebraska State Patrol training center in Grand Island.
Sheriff Mahon said that he will have to request additional jail beds -- at the Phelps County jail in Holdrege -- when the city's holding facility closes. Prisoners are now transported to jails in Hitchcock (Trenton), Frontier (Curtis), Dawson (Lexington) and Phelps counties in Nebraska and Decatur County (Oberlin) in Kansas.
OK ... so the question about who decides what about building or not building a jail.
Nebraska statute SS23-120 provides county boards with the flexibility to make certain tax levy decisions for building projects without taking the question to a vote or a petition of the people. The statute imposes certain limits on the size of bond-financed building projects based on the county population and the impact that principal and interest payments would have on the property tax levy. Building projects that exceed those limits require that the issue be decided by a petition or a vote. It is not the size of the bond issue that is limited by SS 23-120, but the annual dollar amount and/or levy require for principal and interest payments.
Commissioner Steve Downer said at Monday's meeting that he's concerned that building without a vote means having to include the repayment of the bonds within the county's state-mandated 50-cent tax levy limit. If the jail construction is approved by a vote of the people, the repayment of the bonds is outside the tax levy limit.
McNutt explained that the county's levy right now is 38 cents (per $100 of tax valuation).
* WITHOUT A VOTE -- The 41⁄2-cent levy to repay jail bonds would push the county's levy to 421⁄2 cents. Then, there's another approximately 3-cent levy for jail operational costs, he said. "At 45 cents, we're approaching the maximum," McNutt said.
* WITH A SUCCESSFUL ELECTION -- The 41⁄2-cent levy to repay jail bonds would be outside the county's levy lid, although jail operational costs would still be within the levy limit and take the county's existing 38-cent levy to approximately 41 cents.
Downer is concerned that if the state takes away counties' inheritance taxes -- which Red Willow County uses as a "savings account" -- or decreases highway allocation funds, the county's tax levy will have to move even closer to its 50-cent limit.
McNutt said he does not want to push the 50-cent levy limit. " .... right up to the levy limit, and then we can't do anything more but cut services and personnel," he said.
Donald Wilson of McCook, the county's auditor, told commissioners Monday that the county can not increase its restricted funds (property taxes) by more than 3.5 percent over the previous year. McNutt said it might be a good idea for the board to start building law enforcement center operational costs into the budget now to grow the budget gradually.
In other action Monday:
* Wilson presented the county budget audit report for 2010-2011, explaining that he reminded the county fair board that its must remit all donations to the county treasurer and have all claims approved by the county board.
Wilson also said he informed the clerk of the district court that judgements sitting in her account are not protected by the FDIC.
Commissioners approved Wilson's reports as it was presented. The audit report is on file in the county clerk's office.
Commissions also approved a new three-year agreement, through 2014, with Wilson at the same price ($9,000 a year) as the last three-year agreement.
* Andy Snyder of Smith Hayes Financial Services Corp. told commissioners that highway allocation bonds could be used to pay for the replacement bridge north of the former Republican Valley Junior/Senior High School scheduled for construction in early spring. The bonds would have a three-year term with the first interest payment due six months after bonds are issued. County treasurer Marleen Garcia said the bond fund would have to be added to the budget, and if the money is to be expended before the end of this fiscal year, commissioners will have to open the budget and make the adjustments.
Commissioners adopted a resolution authorizing the issuance of highway allocation bonds, not to exceed $185,000, to pay for the replacement bridge.
* McNutt asked that Paul Grieger of D.A. Davidson & Co. and Mike Rogers, attorney for Baird Holm Law Firm and counsel for D.A. Davidson, schedule a conference call regarding jail financing with one of the county board members, county attorney Paul Wood, Donald Wilson and the county treasurer and clerk for Wednesday at 10 a.m.
The next county commissioners' meeting will be Monday, Feb. 13, starting at 9 a.m., in the commissioners' room on the third floor of the courthouse in McCook.