Suffice it to say there is not enough room to cover all the necessary points of this issue in one “Letter to the Editor.” When the County Commission attempted to foist the cost of the “Taj Mahal” jail on the property owners of Lewis and Clark County a couple of years ago, I wrote a letter that was published in the IR about the matter (notice I said property owners and not voters – more on that later).

First, a jail is a pre-trial detention center, nothing else. Those who have been arrested are eventually granted bail or they’re not. The ones who can make bail do so, and are free to go until they stand trial. Those who can’t make bail along with the more serious offenders, have to sit in jail until their trial date. Jails are not rehabilitation centers, job training centers, psychological evaluation clinics, drug education centers or any of the other tasks the County Commission would have you believe that they are. Those tasks are for other county agencies, already in place, to handle, not the jail. If the County Commission hasn’t adequately funded those agencies, that is an entirely different discussion for another time.

Some things to consider:

In my original letter I pointed out that the County Commission did not even form a finance committee to investigate various methods of financing this project. To my knowledge, they have still yet to do it. For instance, with some serious work with the Montana legislature in years gone by (this situation didn’t just crop up) other means could’ve been investigated. As an example, rather than again burdening only the property owners with this new tax, fees for various vehicle license tags could’ve been increased. By increasing the cost of tags for automobiles, trucks, boats, ATV’s, snowmobiles, trailers, etc. the cost would be spread out to most residents of the county, rather than just the property owners.

This levy is actually a double-edged sword for county residential property owners. All businesses operating in Lewis and Clark County that own property will also be assessed (this is seldom mentioned in the discussion of a levy). These businesses will obviously pass on these additional taxes to consumers, many who are also property owners.

Often lost also is the fact that this levy is decided by ALL VOTERS in the county, not just property owners, thereby diluting the votes of those who have the sole responsibility to pay this levy, should it pass.

The average cost of a new home in Lewis and Clark County is now well above $200K, which means every homeowner with said house value will be paying at least an additional $85+ per year. With seemingly an annual school tax on the November ballot (and sometimes in the summer when many voters are on vacation, doing summer activities, etc. and not paying attention) these increases mount up (in fact we’ll be paying for a school levy in the amount of $63 million that was passed this summer).

The county has not done an adequate job of defining where the $60 million will be specifically spent. Among the expenditures that are identified are some that deviate widely from the intended use of a jail. For instance, $750,000 for “jail diversion and risk prevention,” $200,000 for ”a mental health therapist/case manager,” $45,000 for “an early intervention commander,” $325,000 for “pre-trial services.” These services include “restorative justice, which allows inmates to meet with victims to repair damage from crimes, volunteer programs, and early intervention and supervision programs.”

Another $145,000 is “aimed at preventing repeat offenses, crisis funding, journey home funding and drop-in center funding.” You have to ask yourself are these things the local jail should be spending property owners’ money on? After all, the county jail is again, a pre-trial detention center. It’s a place where those who have broken the law sit and wait until their trial date comes up. It would seem that tax money would be more wisely spent on additional judges to competently take care of cases in a more timely manner than to pay for social programs that jails were never intended to deliver.

Recently, due to budget shortfalls, various Montana state agencies were required to cut costs. The governor, in conjunction with state legislators, will determine who will incur these budget cuts, but cuts will be made per state law. Many state employees who will lose their jobs are homeowners, i.e. they will be further affected by this proposed levy. In today’s environment, with tight budgets and overspending, the County Commission did not offer to the citizens of Lewis and Clark County, any cost cutting plans in county operations to help pay for this project. If the State of Montana is required to cut costs, wouldn’t it follow that Lewis and Clark County could do the same?

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This commission, sans one new commissioner, is the same one that bought and paid over $1 million for a piece of property to build the previously proposed lavish new jail on before going to the voters for approval to build the jail. The disposition of this undeveloped land is still unknown to me.

For these and numerous other reasons this limited space prohibits, I strongly recommend that you vote “NO” to this levy.

Douglas S. Tapper

Helena

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