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August 10, 2007 - Spokesman-Review (WA)

Mayor Larkin Surprised By Jail Plan

Post Falls Mayor Says County Left Him Out Of Discussions

By Erica Curless, Staff writer

Post Falls Mayor Clay Larkin said he was blindsided by a county proposal to build a jail next to a planned new garbage transfer station just outside the city limits.

Larkin and Post Falls Police Department officials said they didn't know about the idea to house perhaps 200 inmates near town on the Rathdrum Prairie until they read it in local newspapers Thursday.

Kootenai County Commission Chairman Rick Currie apologized to Larkin on Thursday and said the mayor and other officials should have been included in preliminary talks for the jail and recycling center, which are still in the idea stage.

Currie said nobody was notified because the county wasn't prepared to make the proposal public. County commissioners wanted more specifics about costs, sewer options and security before involving the public, he said.

Currie and Commissioner Todd Tondee appeared surprised when questioned about the plan Wednesday.

Sheriff Rocky Watson said he doesn't know why they'd be surprised because they've had several meetings about the idea, exchanged public memos and have talked with recycling businesses.

Kootenai County residents might vote on how to finance the jail and recycling center in November 2008. The concept is to build a new jail next to the transfer station so inmates could work in an on-site recyclables sorting center. That would ease crowding at the existing jail, solve segregation problems and boost recycling options in the county -- plus extend the life of the county landfill.

Even if the transfer station doesn't become home to the new jail, the idea isn't dead, Watson said. He foresees building a recycling center at the site where inmates would work, regardless of what happens to the jail expansion proposal. To solve the crowding problem, the county would expand the jail on Government Way and transport inmates to the transfer station each day for work.

"At the end of the day there are no real deal breakers," Watson said. "And nothing is set in concrete other than the philosophy."

Yet Larkin has concerns about having inmates so close to Post Falls and how the jail, which would sit over the Spokane Valley/Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer, would get sewer service.

"This community already said 'no' to a work-release center, and I thought that was the end of it," Larkin said, referring to a 2002 push by the state Department of Correction to build a 100-bed work center in Post Falls.

Larkin and the County Commission opposed the plan after critics gathered thousands of signatures against the center. Watson also objected because the work-release center would house prisoners from across the state, not just Kootenai County, and could have increased the local crime rate. Eventually, state officials dropped the proposal.

Larkin said he already is starting to get phone calls from Post Falls residents uncomfortable with having a jail so close. And because he was left out of the discussion, he doesn't know what to tell them.

Post Falls can't provide sewer because the county property off Pleasant View Road doesn't adjoin the city limits, Larkin said. He also is opposed to the county allowing any large buildings such as a jail or a big church on the Rathdrum Prairie until a master plan sewer study is completed this fall.

Watson said the county can't figure out the sewer needs until a decision is made on how many beds the jail would provide. By then, the master plan should be complete.

Larkin, who prides himself as an environmental watchdog, said he does like the idea of inmates sorting recyclables. "I think the concept is good; it's just the way (the county) is trying to do business," he said. "It's the process."

As for lingering concerns from the previous work-release center debate, Watson and Currie agreed that was to be a totally different facility than a high-security jail, where inmates would not be able to come and go.

The new jail would have the same security as the one on Government Way. Guards would watch the inmates sort garbage coming in on a conveyor belt. Recyclables and garbage would go into chutes, then onto trucks or railcars. Inmates would have no need to leave workstations.

A work-release center, by contrast, houses low-security people transitioning from the state prison. The inmates there leave each day for jobs to learn skills and help make them successful members of society.

As for concerns about workers snagging weapons and drugs from the garbage, Watson said inmates would be strip-searched and required to shower after every shift. Identity theft also is of little concern, he said. Unless the inmate has a photographic memory, there's no way for them to keep the information. Watson said identity theft is more of a problem in places where garbage sorters are minimum-wage workers.

"Those people don't get strip-searched at the end of every shift," he said.

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