County voters have another opportunity in November to increase taxes to fund the operation and maintenance of an expanded detention facility.
Lewis and Clark County Commissioners approved the addition to this year’s ballot Thursday morning, after a similar vote failed to pass twice in the past two years.
Last year, voters narrowly approved renovating the Law Enforcement Center so all three floors could be used for detention, but rejected a 15-year levy to fund the facility.
Because the two ballot issues were tied together, the voter-approved renovation is delayed until the increased operation and maintenance funds are approved.
The county facility opened more than 30 years ago with beds for 54 inmates, but additional beds were added to increase the sleeping capacity to 80. As of July 11, the detention center was responsible for 119 inmates, more than double its intended capacity.
“I would refer to this situation as an emergency,” Commission Chair Susan Good Geise said. “There are detention center officers who are fearful to do their jobs because of the overcrowding at our facility. In the last few months, we’ve had several officers sent to the hospital who have been physically harmed due to conditions at the jail.”
This year’s ballot issue is the same as the failed 2016 version. The 15-year levy to fund operations, maintenance and improvements to inmate mental health care would increase the property taxes on a home valued at $100,000 by $42.86 annually, while a home valued at $200,000 would have an $85.72 increase in its tax bill.
The $6.5 million in bonds to remodel the Law Enforcement Center passed last year with 50.01 percent in favor and 49.99 percent opposed.
In November 2016, almost 57 percent of voters rejected the first version of the proposed levy that would have raised $4 million annually to fund the operation and maintenance of the approved detention facility at the Law Enforcement Center, which currently uses its second floor for detention space.
Good Geise said the county is planning a schedule to allow tours of the jail, so that citizens can see what the current conditions are like.
“The only reason the ACLU hasn’t sued us over the current conditions is because they see we are doing everything we can to pass this,” she said. “We’re asking people who do come for a tour of the jail to tell five friends about what they saw. No one is going to tell them what to say, but I think the conditions will speak for themselves.”
At a Criminal Justice Coordinating Council meeting earlier this year, Commissioner Andy Hunthausen said addressing jail overcrowding was a top priority for the county.
“We’re in such a crisis situation, the whole system, that we really have to address it. We don’t have an option not to address it,” Hunthausen said. “There’s no way we can do it without the community stepping up and taking responsibility for this. And it is all of our responsibility. It is a service that we have to provide.”