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August 9, 2007 - Spokesman-Review (WA)

Jail Recycle Center Proposed

Plan Uses Inmates To Sort County Trash

By Erica Curless, Staff writer

Recycling could solve Kootenai County's critical crowded jail problem, extend the life of the county landfill and perhaps save taxpayer money.

Sheriff Rocky Watson and Solid Waste Director Roger Saterfiel are pitching an innovative plan to build a new jail next to the county's soon-to-be- built garbage transfer station off Pleasant View Road, just west of Post Falls.

Inmates -- likely those already sentenced by the courts -- would live at the new jail and work in an on-site recyclables sorting center.

There are no details yet, but Watson envisions a conveyor belt running garbage into the jail for guarded inmates to sort. From there, plastics, paper and cardboard would be dumped down chutes into trucks or railcars for transport to recycling plants.

Saterfiel said at least half of the 600 tons of garbage that residents and businesses bring to the existing transfer station on Ramsey Road each day is recyclable. Yet it's too expensive for county workers to sort out materials that can be recycled.

That leaves the county with a weak program, especially when so many residents are asking for more recycling, Saterfiel said. And the Fighting Creek Landfill south of Coeur d'Alene will fill up years sooner than originally anticipated, he said.

So far, the Kootenai County Commission thinks the proposal has merit and needs further study. On Tuesday, Commissioner Todd Tondee said the commission was researching some "pretty good solutions" to the jail-crowding situation, but he declined to provide details, saying he wants to ensure it's feasible before making it widely known.

"It's a grand idea, and it needs to be explored more," he said.

Commission Chairman Rick Currie agreed, saying the concept is excellent. "I would think the public opinion would be in our favor," Currie said.

That's what the county needs if it's going to persuade voters to support paying for a second jail or an expansion of the existing jail on Government Way, next to the county fairgrounds.

Residents might get to vote in November 2008 on funding the proposed inmate work center, which doesn't yet have a price tag or bed estimate. The timing would mean the county still could ask voters to fund the jail expansion by increasing the sales tax by a half cent, rather than raising property taxes.

The local sales tax option will close in 2009 unless the Idaho Legislature extends the law, which hasn't been popular with lawmakers outside of North Idaho.

The local-option sales tax is how the county paid for the $12 million jail expansion approved by voters in 2000.

Yet voters in 2005 rejected a $50 million sales tax proposal to expand the 325-bed jail.

Two years later, the jail is still crowded, and the county is sending inmates to jails in other counties.

Jail Capt. Travis Chaney said the problem has grown more critical because the jail is housing more violent offenders, gang members and felons. Even though there are often enough beds for each inmate, there isn't room in the dormitory-style pods to segregate low- and high-risk inmates.

The situation is worse because of a staff shortage. The jail soon will have 12 openings for deputies.

Watson said building a new facility, potentially a three-story jail and recycling center, on the 68-acre transfer station property would help alleviate those problems by freeing up space taken by at least 100 sentenced inmates.

Yet the sheriff also wants the funding measure to include money to build a new pod of single cells at the existing jail to ensure there's enough flexibility for segregation.

Watson said the concept isn't new. He recently visited Salt Lake City, where minimum-wage workers, not inmates, sort recyclables.

Saterfiel said that the engineer working on the Pleasant View transfer station also builds jails. Construction on the transfer station is expected to start in September,

Having inmates sort recyclables would mean free labor for the county and prolong the life of the landfill, which is filling rapidly because of the county's booming growth. Building a new landfill or shipping garbage out of state would be more expensive, Saterfiel said.

The landfill is expected to last until 2037, but that's based on a much slower growth rate than what the county is experiencing.

In 2004, the amount of garbage taken to Fighting Creek rose by 36 million pounds, which is equivalent to about 13,333 passenger cars. A total of 272 million pounds of garbage went to the landfill that year.

Currie opined the next step is to visit a few towns that have recycling centers where inmates work. Then he wants the county to hire a consultant to design a possible jail facility and come up with a price.

"We have a long ways to go," Currie said. "But there are a tremendous number of positives."

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