The ballot boxes closed at 8 p.m. Tuesday and by 8:45, Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton says he was already talking about next steps for funding made available for the detention center.
“I’m very grateful to the voters, and now I guess you can say the real work begins,” he said.
On Tuesday, voters approved a 15-year, $4 million annual levy for operating a jail slated for $6.5 million in remodeling. Last November voters approved the $6.5 million construction bond but voted down an operations levy. With the levy passing by a nearly 10-point margin this year, Dutton and other county officials are pushing forward to bring the project to fruition.
“Our voters have spoken and we feel that direction is clear,” said Roger Baltz, the county administrator. “It’s absolutely crucial that we move forward exactly as we indicated to the voters.”
Advocates for the levy and bond say the current detention center is unsafe due to overcrowding and outdated technology. The county also spends roughly $200,000 per year housing inmates in other counties due to lack of capacity.
A feasibility study provides an overview of turning the 80-bed facility into 154 beds on three floors. The levy funds an additional 33 detention officers, along with technology upgrades and diversion programming.
Remodeling means space currently occupied by the Helena Police Department and Sheriff’s Office will become jail space, and both departments need to find a new home.
“If we continue to co-locate, and I strongly encourage the Helena Police Department to do so, we need to find a building that meets both of those needs,” Dutton said.
Prospective office buildings must meet certain security criteria to house evidence. Finding a location near the courthouse and detention center may be difficult, he said.
Multiple working groups will be in play for the relocation effort, construction and the new programming, Baltz said, and officials had begun those conversations in days following the election.
The morning after the election, county commissioners agreed to move forward “deliberately and carefully,” said Commission Chair Susan Good Geise.
“Much of this levy will not be happening all at one time and most of the hiring will be after the additional beds are constructed,” she said. “This was such a big ask of voters so I want to make sure they’re spending every dime wisely. I’d rather move slow and deliberate and get it right rather than have a misstep.”
Officials were largely cautious on identifying a timeline for letting design and construction contracts and actual construction. Dutton did say he thought a year to 15 months seemed reasonable for completion, but cautioned that the estimate was a best guess.
“There’ll be a lot going on simultaneously between the bricks and mortar and the systemic changes we’re looking at,” he said.
Hiring will be phased in over time, although inmates are not expected to be displaced during construction. Once completed, all county inmates will be housed in Helena.
One new position that has already been filled is the new director of restorative justice and court systems. Kellie Goodwin McBride will leave her post as head of YWCA to head up the program in December. She accepted the job, which is partially funded through the county and a grant, about a week before the election.
“I’ll be working with the sheriff’s office, Helena police, county attorney, district judges, mental health providers, all looking at how we can reduce recidivism,” she said. Recidivism refers to a criminal’s tendency to re-offend, and programming will include treatment and pretrial diversion, which operates similar to probation in allowing some of those awaiting trial to do so out of jail.
Geise noted that before the election, many of the plans remained in a conceptual phase and she and others recognize that they are under pressure to get detention officers and inmates into a safer facility. She says they look forward to working with interested groups and the public as the process moves along.
“We are always looking for more participation rather than less,” she said.