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July 20, 2008 -- Spokesman-Review (WA)

Editorial -- Our View: Jail Should Wait

Delaying A Vote Would Allow For Creative Solutions

In the building trade, there exists this phrase: "Sharpen your pencil." It's what builders do when the price of a home or building comes in too high for the buyer's comfort. They often modify designs or rethink construction plans.

Earlier this month, Integrus Architecture told Spokane County leaders that a proposed new jail would cost $245 million and $8 million a year to operate. Kootenai County needs a new jail, too. Price tag on that proposal: $147 million. Taxpayers would, of course, be asked to pay for both jails.

Spokane County commissioners must decide by Aug. 12 whether to ask voters in November to approve new taxes to cover the cost. Wisely, Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich thinks it best to delay that vote. He said, "I do not think that I have enough time between now and November to educate the public on what these costs are, why these costs are the way they are and the philosophies behind the costs."

He's exactly right about the need for good timing with voters. Residents are feeling squeezed now. Gas soars above $4. The staples in their refrigerators -- milk, eggs, butter -- cost more than ever, because the rate of inflation is at its highest level since 1991. Residents have garaged their cars in favor of public transportation and given up summer vacations; some struggle to pay for food, shelter and health care. Residents can't be in a giving mood right now, especially when asked to provide food, shelter and health care for inmates.

In a year, the economic climate could change. Things can turn around quickly. It was little more than a year ago that housing prices soared and employers worried how to fill positions because of record-low unemployment rates.

The delay could allow for some creative brainstorming. Can Kootenai County and Spokane County collaborate on some jail functions? Spokane County hopes to create a community corrections center where inmates learn job and life skills and receive treatment for the addictions that often send them back to jail. Kootenai County officials are brainstorming ideas to use inmate labor at a regional recycling facility.

An intergovernmental approach might also justify reconsidering the controversial site choice that now foresees an expanded jail close to both upscale and modest residential areas in Spokane.

If too many legal and jurisdictional hurdles exist to incarcerate Idaho and Washington prisoners together, perhaps the counties can collaborate on the community corrections center or inmate employment opportunities.

Leaders in both counties need to sharpen some pencils, think in creative ways, try to get these jail costs down -- and then plead their case to the voters.

Sidebar: Why So Costly?

Though construction spending is expected to decline almost 4 percent in 2008 in the United States, lower demand won't translate to cheaper costs. The global market for construction materials has driven up the price of steel pipe, structural steel, concrete and copper. Plus, it's much more expensive to transport building materials due to the high cost of gas.

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