(Prochaska & Associates)
To finance the new facility's construction, commissioners will ask voters at the May preliminary election whether they want a bond repayment levy within or outside of the county's state-mandated 50-cent tax levy limit. Operation costs of the jail and sheriff's offices will be within the levy limit. The annual payment for construction costs would be $340,000 for 20 years.
Commission chairman Earl McNutt told fellow commissioners Steve Downer and Vesta Dack and several elected officials and citizens, "It's time to make it official ... to make this project happen."
McNutt said, "This has been a topic for a long time. It's time to go forward or say 'no' to it."
McNutt said commissioners have studied the jail issue for years -- most intensively since 2004 (the county closed its jail in 1982 because it did not meet state jail standards) -- creating jail task force committees to delve into the pros and cons, touring old and new facilities, talking to law enforcement officials and county commissioners from across the state, hiring professional consultants, architects and bond underwriters, conducting public informational meetings.
Voters said 'no' to a joint public safety facility with the City of McCook in 2006, a structure that would most likely have been built on the former West Ward location -- which is where the city is now building a city-only fire and police facility without prisoner holding cells.
It's that lack of holding cells that has backed the county into a corner, that will change the way Red Willow County law enforcement operates and how it handles its prisoners, McNutt said. According to state statute, it is ultimately the county's responsibility to incarcerate any one arrested within the county -- inside or outside the city of McCook, by sheriff's officials or police officers. For short-term incarceration, the sheriff's department has used the city's 96-hour holding cells, and then transported to other jails if it's necessary. For long-term situations, prisoners are housed in rented jail beds in Trenton, Curtis, Lexington, Oberlin and Holdrege.
Without the holding cells, anyone arrested will have to be transported immediately to one of the jails that rents bed space to Red Willow County. This process will require 24-hour transport capabilities and additional personnel and vehicles for the sheriff's office.
The city is expected to move into its new facility in October 2012. The city offered its old holding cell facility to the county for $1, but commissioners feel that the facility -- while it meets state jail standards now -- will require extensive renovations to continue to meet jail standards. McNutt said the city facility was presented to city voters as "a money pit." He asked, if it's not good enough for the city's use, why is it good enough for use by the county?
Downer compared the old city facility to a "clunker car," a car that's going to require extensive repair and renovation. "There are issues there -- the cells there are not a whole lot different than what we (the county) closed," Downer said.
Commissioner Vesta Dack fears the city facility won't meet standards for long. She said, "For sure, jail standards will be here. Jail standards will be on top of it immediately."
Dack continued, "If we continue to hold and transport prisoners, there is no way to control costs. If we go hold-and-transport, we will see raises in the daily care (of prisoners)," and in the yearly costs of contracts with counties offering rented jail beds.
The most recent jail study committee eliminated the city's facility as a viable, long-term option for the county, and ultimately recommended what it called "Option 1A" -- a law enforcement facility with sheriff's offices and a 24-bed jail built next door to the courthouse on the north. The facility is expandable to 36 beds and designed so that at some point it could be attached to the courthouse.
McNutt said, "The bottom line is a question of two decisions -- do we transport forever, or do we build a new facility?"
McCook resident Dale Dueland told commissioners that his concerns are the size of the proposed jail and its proposed location. Dueland said there has not been enough work done to make the proposed jail cost efficient, suggesting that county-wide law enforcement and one dispatching center -- not duplicating services -- may increase the cost efficiency of the proposed jail.
McNutt said the county contracts with the city for dispatching services; county attorney Paul Wood said that for now, there are no plans to duplicate dispatching services. Wood said that disbanding the city's police department would require a resolution approved by the city council.
Wood added, however, that the possibility of interlocal agreements for dispatchers and jailers appears to be a "ship (that) has sailed."
Dueland said he does not want a jail on Norris Avenue near what the community calls its "Heritage Square" historical area. He said that city zoning may prohibit a jail in that location and suggested that the location is "open to challenge," although he admitted that that may not be "the best use of tax payer money."
"Why on Norris?" Dueland asked. Because of the lots' proximity to the courthouse, McNutt said, to eliminate transportation of prisoners from jail to the courtroom. "This is the only place to put it," McNutt said. "It's most efficient next to the courthouse."
McNutt said that many Nebraska counties' jails are adjacent to their county courthouses, and many are "right smack in the center of town."
Dueland asked about the profile of Red Willow County prisoners, that DUI's (driving while intoxicated) are maybe in jail and right back out. "How dangerous are our prisoners?" he asked. "You have to consider that when you're talking transportation."
Sheriff Gene Mahon said that prisoner populations do fluctuate and that DUI's are a very minimal number of those incarcerated. Of Red Willow County's 17 prisoners on Monday, eight are long-term, and include those accused of, suspected of and/or sentenced for murder, assault, escape and burglary; several have been sentenced for up to 120 days. "We have much more serious types of crime than say, 15 years ago," Mahon said,
"It's the long-term prisoners that the deputies are on the road the most," Mahon said. "We're hauling a higher-profile criminal."
Downer admitted that he "can't see well into the future," but he does predict that within the next 10 years, Red Willow County's may be the only jail between Holdrege and the Colorado line and North Platte and the Kansas line. "We would have fewer options," he said, if the county continues to transport its prisoners.
Dueland also questioned whether the Norris Avenue location is large enough if Red Willow's jail were to become a regional jail and the proposed jail needed to expand. He reiterated what he told commissioners in September 2011, that the jail's efficiency would be improved with more prisoners. He suggested in September that commissioners look into the possibility of renting out bed space and contracting with immigration, other counties, and state and federal marshals to improve the prisoner/staff ratio and facility efficiency.
Dueland said he agrees with Downer that small jails may be closing, and regional jails may need to be bigger. "But not on Norris Avenue," he said.
Tom Buresh of McCook also objected to the Norris Avenue location, suggesting that any alternative to Norris Avenue should be considered. "People I've talked to are not happy with the (Norris Avenue) location," Buresh said.
Downer made the motion to build a new law enforcement center "on this block," next door to the courthouse, a motion seconded by Dack. The vote was unanimous.
Wood summarized the commissioners' action on the jail decision agenda item, saying, "The first vote was commissioners' decision to 'yes,' build a jail." The complementary action item then was how to pay for the construction of the jail, and the board decided to leave that to the voters.
During the preliminary election May 8, voters will be asked to decide between a bond repayment levy within the state-mandated 50-cent tax levy limit or a bond levy outside the levy limit. It will not be a "yes" or "no" to build a jail -- that decision's been made -- but to pay for the construction of a jail inside or outside the levy limit.
Although the ballot language has not been written yet, McNutt said this morning, "Our intention is that a 'yes' vote will be for a levy for bond repayment outside the levy limit," to give the regular levy some leeway for normal cost increases and inflation, to "help keep the county's financial situation healthy." McNutt said Monday, "Literally, nothing we do get cheaper."
The county's existing tax levy is 38 cents of every $100 of tax valuation. If bond repayment is within the levy limit, the 4 1/2 cent levy to repay jail construction bonds would push the county's levy to 42 1/2 cents. With an additional approximately 3-cent levy for jail operations, the county's total regular levy would be 45 1/2 cents, which is approaching the 50-cent tax levy limit.
If bond repayment is outside the levy limit, the 4 1/2-cent bond repayment levy would be in addition to the regular levy that falls under the levy limit. Jail operations would be within the levy limit, bringing the county levy within the lid to 41 cents. McNutt said at a Jan. 30 board meeting that he does not want to push the 50-cent limit. " ... right up to the levy limit, and then we can't do anything more (to stay below that limit) but cut services and personnel."
Downer said that putting the bond repayment levy outside the regular levy would give future commissioners "just a little more flexibility," especially if the state eliminates inheritance taxes (which the county uses as a "savings account") and/or reduces or eliminates highway allocation funding to counties, which Downer describes as "our road budget."
Downer said if the bond repayment is outside the levy limit, a tax payer's tax bill from the county would look just like a school district that is paying for construction bonds -- it would have a regular tax levy and a bond levy.
McNutt said he has "lots of concerns for future boards. That's the purpose of letting voters decide on the bonds."
County assessor Sandra Kotschwar said she's concerned that a tight budget within the levy lid would put a strain on other county departments. Kotschwar said that every year at budget time, commissioners ask elected officials how much they can cut from their proposed budgets. "We've cut our budgets as much as possible. How much more can we cut in our office, and still do a good job?" she asked. "We have to have a vote to have the bond repayment outside the lid."
Wood agreed, "What you can get outside the levy limit, do it, to preserve the solvency of the county."
Wood told commissioners, "This is a hand that's been dealt to this board," calling it "quite a pickle." Downer added, "And there's not a better time to get out of this pickle," with low interest rates and relatively low construction costs.
Kotschwar said she is concerned with the possible loss of inheritance taxes, as the county "borrows from it when we run short." She also asked, "What happens if the county valuation drops?" The current valuation is 7.62 million.
Downer's motion to put the question on the May ballot to issue bonds to finance construction of the law enforcement center was seconded by Dack. The vote was unanimous.
The vote was also unanimous to hire D.A. Davidson & Company of Omaha as the bond underwriter for the law enforcement center project.
McNutt said commissioners interviewed five agencies and selected D.A. Davidson because it worked with the county on the 2006 joint city-county public safety center-jail project. The company worked for free at that time, McNutt said, because that bond issue failed. It was the understanding at that time that D.A. Davidson would not charge for its services unless the election was successful and bonds were sold.
D.A. Davidson will help with public education, create informational brochures and write the ballot language.