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September 12, 2004 - The Spokesman-Review (WA)

New Jail, Courtrooms On Stevens County Ballot

Bond Measure, Sales Tax Hike Needed For Safety, Officials Say

By John Craig. Staff writer

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Stevens County residents are being asked to approve two money measures that county officials say are needed for public safety.

A $17.5 million bond measure would build a 116-bed jail and courtroom building, and a 0.03 percent sales-tax increase would cover the increased operating costs and other law enforcement expenses.

Both measures are needed, according to county commissioners, Sheriff Craig Thayer and a chorus of other present and former public officials.

"We're hurting in every area of law enforcement," said Commissioner Malcolm Friedman, who believes public safety is the county's most important mission.

Critics say the bond measure and sales-tax increase are too costly and would encourage unnecessary incarceration.

"It's just too excessive an expenditure for a county whose resources are as strained as Stevens County's are," said Colville defense attorney Robert Simeone.

The county would get 60 percent of the new sales-tax revenue, estimated at $870,000 a year, based on 2003 data. The county's share would be $522,000.

The rest of the money would go to the county's incorporated cities and towns on a per-capita basis: Colville, $180,960; Chewelah, $83,520; Kettle Falls, $55,680; Northport and Springdale, $10,440 each; and Marcus, $6,960.

All the sales-tax money would be designated exclusively for criminal justice uses.

Stevens County would use some of its share to hire more corrections officers and road deputies, Thayer said, noting his office has only 0.7 commissioned officers for every thousand residents. The statewide average is 1.6 per thousand.

But the county's highest priority is to restore a derailed program of replacing patrol cars on a regular basis. Deputies' newest cars are 2002 models, approaching the point at which high-use vehicles should be replaced to ensure reliability and efficiency, Friedman said.

"We have from 120,000 to 160,000 miles on many of the cars that we depend on every day, so there is a high maintenance cost," Friedman said, adding that some cars have more than 200,000 miles.

Thayer said his department is trapped between the needs of a growing population and revenue that is declining because of tax-cutting initiatives. Complicating the dilemma, he said, are state laws requiring mandatory jail terms without providing more money.

The 21-year bond measure would replace a jail in the courthouse basement that was built to house 24 inmates in 1978. The county's population, now 40,485, was 24,991 when the jail was built.

Capacity has been increased to 43, primarily by putting two bunks into cells designed for one. Even so, corrections officers often have to put mattresses on the floor to accommodate about 10 of the inmates.

"We have done every conceivable fix with the existing facility," Thayer said.

Besides putting inmates on the floor, the county sends 15 to 20 others to jails outside the county at a cost of approximately $250,000 a year, not counting transportation.

Along with tension from overcrowding, the jail's narrow hallways and blind corners create a safety hazard for corrections officers, county officials say.

Jail commander Shane Moffitt said almost all of his officers have been assaulted, and several have suffered disabling injuries. Moffitt had surgery in January to fuse his back in two places where disks were destroyed when a prisoner attacked him.

The proposed jail would be in a new building across Birch Street from the county courthouse. The building would include new courtrooms, eliminating the current problem of having to move inmates down public hallways for court appearances.

Other county departments would move into the old courtrooms.

Officials say the proposed new jail is projected to meet the county's needs for 20 years. It would cost property owners an estimated 55 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, or $55 a year for the owner of a $100,000 home.

Thayer contends the bond and sales-tax measures would be an investment in the county's economy.

"The quality of life and the business and economic climate need adequate law and justice," the sheriff said. "The jail and courts and law enforcement are the cornerstones of that."

Critics say they're satisfied with the current jail. It is "clean, dry and secure," Simeone said.

He believes it would be more cost-effective to continue using the Ferry County Jail for overflow prisoners and those who can't be kept in the Stevens County jail because of the jail's lack of outdoor recreation. Because it lacks recreation facilities, state regulations forbid keeping prisoners in the Stevens County Jail longer than 90 days.

Implementation of a drug court to steer inmates into treatment programs and use of electronic home monitoring also could reduce the jail population and save money, Simeone suggested.

Simeone is one of three people who wrote a voter's pamphlet statement opposing the proposals. The others are Stan Long, an accountant from Valley, Wash., and Colville-area resident H. Riley Stephenson, who has been a sheriff's underwater recovery unit volunteer since 1961.

Young parents already work so hard to pay their taxes that they don't have time to raise their children properly, and the children become criminals, Stephenson said.

"I think adding more taxes is just going to create more problems in that respect," he said.

The law-enforcement tax measures also are opposed by the Colville-based November Coalition, which describes itself as an educational and advocacy group that focuses on opposition to the federal "war on drugs."

Opponents and proponents often cite the same evidence.

Where proponents see a jail proposal that would cost the average household only as much as two jugs of milk per month, opponents see empty milk jugs.

A November Coalition-sponsored group donned jail suits and empty milk jugs to march in protest during the Northeastern Washington Fair on Aug. 28. They also passed out play money ­ bills marked $17.5 million ­ and urged people to "keep their money and get out of jail free," spokesman Phil Linden said.

That's one reason a new jail is needed, according to Friedman: "We're going to be able to book those people who need to be in jail instead of writing tickets and turning them loose."

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