(Connie Jo Discoe/McCook Daily Gazette)
County taxpayers will decide May 15 how they want future commissioners to write budgets -- and operate within them -- for the 20 years that it'll take to pay off construction of the $5.1 million jail and sheriff's offices.
Voters will be asked to vote "for" or "against" placing the law enforcement center's 4 1⁄2-cent special tax levy outside the levy limit of 50 cents per $100 of tax valuation
(Connie Jo Discoe/McCook Daily Gazette)
If the vote fails, the construction levy would have to be figured within the 50-cent state levy limit and as part of the general budget.
"Right now, we can do that," McNutt said; the county's tax levy now is $.380743. "But I don't want to get the county so close to the levy limit that future boards are strapped to pay for services."
McNutt worries about unfunded mandates from the state and even from the federal government. "We never know what other governments are going to do to us. I'm looking out for the next guy," McNutt said.
McNutt admitted the jail issue is frustrating. "But, I tell ya what," he said. "It's finally time this county faces its responsibility and builds a jail. This responsibility won't ever go away."
According to state law No. 47-119.01, it is 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 or by Nebraska State Patrol troopers anywhere within the county.
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 when necessary).
Because the city is building a new municipal facility without holding cells, county commissioners and a county jail study committee have wrestled with how to continue to comply with state law.
Committee members, working with professional jail consultants, ultimately recommended to commissioners that the county build a law enforcement facility and a 24-bed jail (expandable to 36 bed) next to, but not attached to, the courthouse, estimated to cost $5.1 million.
McNutt said in Danbury that commissioners wanted a jail to be "attractive," something that "fit into the community, and enhanced the neighborhood."
Architects put the sheriff's offices in the front of the building, lining Norris Avenue north of the courthouse, and the jail on the back side of the building. "There's no jail appearance from the outside," McNutt said. The facility will cost $5.1 million to build.
Operational costs "are tricky," McNutt admitted, explaining that the sheriff's current jail budget -- including transportation costs and jail bed rental -- is $300,000. That figure does not include the sheriff's budget for personnel.
"When the city closes its 96-hour holding cells, our jail operational costs will immediately go up," McNutt said, to approximately $500,000. The additional $200,000 is for additional personnel and cars to transport prisoners 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, because the county will not assume operation of the city's 96-hour cells.
"Even if we do absolutely nothing, our operational costs will instantly hit us, no matter what we do," McNutt said.
It's not feasible for the county to assume operation of the city's 96-hour holding cells, McNutt said, using it until the new jail is built. The county would still need to continue its jail contracts and transport prisoners, he said. If the holding cell facility is closed for even one day, he said, it would need to be renovated to Nebraska jail standards.
Sheriff Gene Mahon said they would have to hire people to staff the 96-hour holding cells and still have personnel for transporting prisoners.
McNutt said that commissioners have also budgeted for normal inflation. "Yes, we know inflation will hit us, too. Every year, the cost of doing business goes up." Commissioners figure that at the end of 20 years, jail operational costs could be $640,000 a year. "Inflation is a given," McNutt said. "Costs are going to rise."
Mahon said daily prisoner counts fluctuate from a low of four or five to a high of 20 or 21. The average daily prisoner count through January and February this year was about 15, he said. "Today, we have 13 in jail," he said.
One of the biggest advantages of the new jail, Mahon said, will be the ability to "classify" prisoners. He explained that Red Willow County has four prisoners in the Phelps County jail in Holdrege, four prisoners who are classified as "high risk" and/or have "caused enough problems" that they are unsuitable to house in county jails in Trenton, Curtis or Oberlin.
The cost of "every prisoner in Holdrege is over-and-above what we budgeted this year," Mahon said.
"Classification of prisoners is important. You can't put a DUI in with someone who just killed somebody," Mahon said.
Mahon said that with societal changes, jails are seeing more of the more dangerous prisoners. "20, 25 years ago, we had no one, or just a few prisoners in jail," Mahon said. "But society's different today. We've got some crazy people out there."
The county's prisoner count, Mahon said, does not include the one, two or three, or half-a-dozen that are "in and out" of the city's holding cells within 96 hours, those that the county "doesn't see."
"Without the 96-hour holding cells, those 'overnighters' will come to us too, whether for just two hours or eight hours," Mahon said. Until and unless Red Willow County builds a jail, they will have to be transported to available jail space in Trenton, Curtis or Oberlin.
Transporting prisoners "is a dangerous business," Mahon said., the most dangerous point is getting a prisoner "in and out" of a facility and "in and out" of the car. "Red Willow County has been extremely fortunate that we haven't had any serious incident since 1982," Mahon said. An escape attempt early-on ended after only about 30 minutes, he said.
Mahon said Red Willow County is also fortunate that the counties with which it contracts have good officers. "We're expecting another county to take care of our prisoners. That's a big liability for Red Willow County," Mahon said. "They've taken care of our prisoners well."
McNutt said it's not wise to plan on accepting prisoners from other counties or from the State of Nebraska to help pay for Red Willow County's jail. "North Platte's new jail isn't full," McNutt said. "They're looking for prisoners."
And the state doesn't have a good reputation for repaying counties for housing its prisoners -- the state owes several counties anywhere from $90,000 to just more than $2 million, McNutt said. "Those are pretty interesting numbers," McNutt said. "We need to focus on taking care of our own business."
He continued, "We've supported other counties for many, many years. It's time to create jobs in our own county."
"What will the jail do to your taxes?" McNutt asked. "The bottom line is, the first year, we'll take a hit on operational costs. But those aren't going to go away, even if we do absolutely nothing."
Construction of the jail will create a bond levy of 4.5 cents, which, on a $100,000 house will mean a tax increase of $45 a year, or $3.75 a month, or 12 cents a day, McNutt said. The tax increase on a $1 million farm will amount to $450 a year, he said.
"We all hate to pay higher taxes," McNutt said. "But we need to do this. The county's hand was forced when only McCook residents voted on a project that impacted the whole county."
McNutt said the county's tax levy could conceivably come down if the county's valuation increases as some project. "History shows that valuations continue to increase," he said, "especially with astronomical land prices. We might be able to maintain a lower levy with increased land valuations. If we can reduce (the tax levy), we will."
McNutt assured those at the meeting that the commissioners are as conservative as possible. He said, "When I spend your tax money, it's like I'm spending my own."
Mahon said that Nebraska Jail Standards determines how a jail is staffed, and a 24-bed, 24-hour jail requires at least two jailers per shift, and, depending on prisoner count, three jailers per shift.
The estimated 10-11 new officers "won't all be working at the same time," he said.
At this time, dispatching will stay with the city, McNutt said. There has been no official discussion about any other arrangement, he said, although it is conceivable that, at some point in time, the county could take over dispatching responsibilities, and the city would pay for dispatching services as the county pays the city now.
McNutt said that if construction bids come in in excess of $5.1 million, commissioners will have to cut back on the plans. "We'll have to cut the project to fit within our budgetary limits," he said. It would be similar to the situation with the city, which eliminated a basement when construction bids came in too high, he said.
Dale Dueland of McCook, who has loudly and unceasingly protested the existence of a jail anywhere near the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home on Norris Avenue, admitted he was "under the assumption ... pure speculation," that the county would cut the project or use money in its jail sinking fund to pay for overages.
McNutt said the $5.1 million includes funding for unexpected expenses. The cost of the project won't go over the $5.1 budget, he said.
McNutt said that as much as people hate it, the most efficient jails are attached to or next to courthouses to minimize transportation and travel with prisoners.
Dueland questioned Mahon about the length of stay for one particular prisoner being held in Holdrege. "He's not going to be a county prisoner forever," Dueland said.
Mahon said, however, that that particular prisoners has been transported between Holdrege and McCook five or six times in the past year and he requires two deputies on each trip. "And that type of prisoner is on the increase," Mahon said.
Mahon said the typical stay of a county prisoner is 90 to 180 days, and can be up to one year before he/she is sent to the state penitentiary.
Dueland said that he has no disagreement with the county commissioners' numbers, just with their solution. He recommends a greenspace site, building a jail on land available south of the work ethic camp operated in McCook by the Nebraska Department of Corrections.
"My solution is less expensive," Dueland said.
Dueland disagreed that commissioners will ever lower the county's levy request. "Our taxes will go up and stay up, not go down," Dueland said.
"We ned a more cost-efficient solution," he said. "Move the jail away from the courthouse. Land at the work can be purchased" for $40,000 to $60,000, far less than what the county has paid to purchase and demolish properties north of the courthouse.
Dueland outlined his plan in seven installments in the print edition of the Gazette, and in one installment on the Gazette's Web site: www.mccookgazette.com