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Ada County Jail expansion will be on the ballot in November

Five people walk down a long hallway with a concrete floor and white cinderblock walls. Four of the people are waring all black with the words "ada county jail" on them.
Ada County Sheriff's Office

Voters in Ada County this November will weigh in on a $49 million bond to expand the county jail. Commissioners this week approved the bond for the upcoming ballot; it’s the first general obligation bond the county’s put before voters since 1992 - which also funded jail upgrades.

If passed, Ada County property owners would see a $3.60/$100,000 of taxable value assessed for 20 years. That works out to less than $14 per year for the average value home, bond advisor Michael Keith of Zions Bank told commissioners.

The bond would raise $49 million for the project, but cost about $71.6 million after interest costs. That number could fluctuate if interest rates move before February, when the bond is expected to be issued if voters approve this fall. Interest expense could also decrease if the bond is paid back early.

The county plans about $20 million in additional funding to pay for the approximately $68 million dollar project. That number remains only an estimate, but is well over the $55.4 million dollar cost sheriff’s officials provided earlier in the week.

About $5 million has already been spent on planning and acquiring land next to the existing jail. The county plans to use the entire master facility plan budget for the project next year, which caught the eye of Ada County Clerk Trent Tripple.

“It would be my recommendation to not use all $10 million of the master facility plan money that's been set aside in FY 24,” Tripple told commissioners. The county has been able to use budget surplus to fund many capital projects in the past, he noted, but a surplus isn’t guaranteed.

“It gives me pause looking at the budget and other other demands that may pop up,” he said. Commissioners did not address his concerns during the meeting, but Commission Chairman Rod Beck said afterward that he was not concerned about committing the entire master facilities plan budget to the project.

It voters give the thumbs-up, the bond would likely be issued in February, and go to bid in March next year, said county Construction Manager Supervisor Josh Brown. Construction on the two-year project could begin as early as August 2024, he said.

The expansion would add nearly 300 beds in three new dorms to the jail, increasing its official capacity by about one-third. Currently the jail regularly operates beyond its official capacity, using cots and other temporary measures, mostly in the general dorms.

Just as important, Sheriff Matt Clifford told County Commissioners, are the infrastructure improvements to the jail’s kitchen, laundry and warehouse facilities.

“The square footage of our warehouse needs to literally be ten times the square footage that it is now,” Clifford said. Jail staff would be able to reclaim operational space currently used for storage and eliminate off-site storage if the expansion moves forward. The jail’s booking and public-facing areas would also be redesigned, and a new street entrance would be created for the property.

An online survey released just a week before the Board of County Commissioners made its decision to issue the bond showed strong support for the project, but only about 1,000 responses by Thursday morning. Support was generally above the 66.6% supermajority threshold the bond would need to pass at the ballot box, and included options for feedback on why people might be opposed to the project.

Sheriff Clifford and his chief legal advisor, Terry Derden, along with consultant Cameron Arial of Clearwater Financial, told commissioners that a lot of the opposition might be smoothed out with public education about how the agency operates.

“The common, kind of, anecdote out there is, ‘well, stop arresting people for misdemeanor marijuana and clogging up the jail,’” Clifford said. “There's nobody in our jail right now that's on a misdemeanor marijuana standalone charge, it usually has a felony attached to it.”

About 90% of county inmates are facing felony charges, he said. Only a small percentage are actually serving a sentence at the county jail; most are awaiting or in the middle of a trial, or waiting to be transferred to a state detention facility to serve a prison sentence. The jail holds federal arrestees, too, on behalf of the U.S. Marshalls.

The county is supervising nearly twice as many people out of custody as it has locked up, Clifford said this week. That includes alternative sentencing programs, pretrial release and misdemeanor probation.

Commissioners chose to bring a bond because of the higher threshold required to pass compared to other approval options; they want strong public support if the project is to move forward.

The county has established a website for the project, and the survey remains open for the public.

Troy Oppie is a reporter and local host of 'All Things Considered' for Boise State Public Radio News.

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