Debate over a new Kootenai County jail is nothing new. The county expanded the existing jail in 2002 to hold 325 beds. By 2007, the county was already averaging 345 inmates a night. The county paid — and still pays — for surplus prisoners to be held elsewhere.
The Kootenai County Sheriff’s website even has a tab dedicated to explaining how inefficient it is to rent beds in places like Republic, Wash., and Thompson Falls, Mont., where surplus inmates are shipped. In 2009, the county estimated it would cost $52 million over 10 years to keep sending surplus inmates to other jails.
But residents have resisted a new jail, turning down three public votes to fund a larger facility, most recently a $57 million proposal in 2009.
Now there’s a proposal that could give county authorities the ability to get their jail without a public vote and without paying upfront for construction.
Too good to be true? At this point, it’s anyone’s guess.
The plan comes from Facilities Management, a group proposing to build a jail and lease it long-term to Kootenai County. The proposal would either include a 400- or a 625-bed facility that would cost an estimated $20.23 per bed, per day, according to a contract offered to the county commission by Facilities Management. That would cost Kootenai County each year about $3 million, in rent alone, for the smaller option and $4.6 million for the larger option.
Of course, that is based on Facilities Management’s calculations. And Kootenai County Commissioner Todd Tondee doesn’t yet buy the company’s math.
“Some of them, I don’t think, are accurate,” Tondee says, referring to what Facilities Management projects it can make by leasing out a new jail’s empty beds to other jurisdictions. “I want much more conservative numbers to see if it will pencil out.”
Tondee says that by spurning previous jail proposals, voters have implicitly endorsed the current practice of renting bed space from jails outside the county.
Facilities Management asked the commission to sign a contract granting the company an exclusive right for a jail facility, according to Tondee, but, “I don’t think we’re ready to sign that contract yet.”
Earl Engelmann, a representative with Facilities Management and president of Rocky Mountain Corrections, says that the company has investors, pointing to a proposal for a similar jail in Gooding County in Idaho. Engelmann referred questions on the specifics of the proposal to Walt Femling. Femling, who is listed in state documents as director of Rocky Mountain Corrections, did not return calls or messages for comment.
Even if the county signed off, there’s no guarantee Facilities Management could immediately follow through with a new jail.
Gooding County has been working for about two years on a similar concept with Facilities Management, according to Terrell Williams, a Gooding County commissioner. No jail has materialized; the county and company are still going back and forth over a final contract, Williams says.
Lost in the ledger-book debates of cost and efficiency is the question of whether private companies should even be involved in law enforcement, says Charlene Taylor-Kindrick, a professor with the Department of Criminal Justice at Boise State University. Private contractors could build more beds than needed in order to try and rent them out, or find ways to save on construction costs.
“It is a company,” Taylor-Kindrick says. “These companies make money by spending less than they charge.”
KOOTENAI SHERIFF CANDIDATES
Joe Bodman, 54, says one solution for overcrowding at the Kootenai County Jail is simply not housing as many nonviolent offenders. A person arrested for driving with a suspended license, for instance, should have their car impounded as a substitute punishment. Other nonviolent offenders should be out on work release, says Bodman, a Spokane County Sheriff’s deputy who worked in Kootenai as a deputy for 13 years. Bodman, who is running as an independent, also wants to raise morale and stem the defections of Kootenai deputies, who often move to larger agencies like the Spokane County Sheriff’s Department.
“The same people have been running that department since 1989,” Bodman says, referring to the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department. “It’s time for people who are going to look out of the box.”
Tom Dickson, 77, is another independent candidate for sheriff. Dickson, a rancher, is a retired police officer with the Los Angeles Police Department and served as head of the criminal justice program at Shoreline Community College in Seattle. Dickson (who did not provide a campaign photo) worked for the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department between 1989 and 1994, when he was fired for “several incidents of poor behavior and his refusal to follow orders,” according to a 1996 Spokesman-Review story.
Dickson says he’d move cautiously on the concept of a jail with involvement by private interests. “If there’s [a] bankruptcy, what happens, what’s the county going to do?” he says.
Dickson says he’d like to find a way to involve the community in the hiring of new deputies. The department needs more deputies to better serve the whole county, he adds.
“There’s a plethora of administrators, there’s a paucity of street deputies,” Dickson says. “They need street deputies on the street to extend out to outlying areas.”
Bob Foster, 66, is the third independent candidate for sheriff. Foster, code officer for the city of Coeur d’Alene, says he’d bring a touch of fiscal conservatism to the sheriff’s department. Foster previously headed law enforcement departments in two different parts of California — at Humboldt State University in Arcata and the city of Willits. He was also a sergeant with the Oakland Police Department.
“I encourage voters to look at the qualifications of each of the candidates,” he says. “I think it will be clear to them that my credentials far exceed any of the other candidates.”
As for his thoughts on the idea of a privately owned jail, Foster says he’s skeptical of the costs. “I think the cost of running a jail is a difficult thing to predict,” he says.
Ben Wolfinger, who won the Republican Party endorsement this spring, is a major with the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department, where he’s worked for nearly 30 years. Wolfinger, 51, opposed an idea by some of his primary contenders to turn the nearly empty Pierce Clegg Work Release Center in Dalton Gardens into a minimum-security jail. The 128-bed work release center was averaging about 10 people per day earlier this year. But Wolfinger says it couldn’t be brought up to building code to work as a jail facility.
As for a private company building the county a jail, “I think that it’s certainly an option that we have to look at,” he says, adding, “The jail issue isn’t going to go away.”
Wolfinger stresses that he’s the only candidate in the race with current law enforcement experience in Kootenai County.