County may drag feet on juvenile jail

"Concern over state money casts chill on building plans, even though local voters agreed last year to raise their sales taxes to pay for it."

  • Friday, September 24, 1999 2:00pm
  • News

“Last November, Island County voters agreed to raise local sales taxes to pay for the construction and operation of a juvenile detention facility.The county’s police and judges said they need a juvenile lockup for two reasons: juvenile offenders need the threat of quick punishment, which doesn’t exist in a county that lacks a juvenile jail; and state law requires a county the size of Island County to provide one.This year, though, the County Commissioners might delay building the facility for three years because of concerns about the reliability of state funding.Commissioner Mac McDowell argues that the county can’t depend on the estimated $200,000 a year the state has promised to pay to rent beds in a lock-up facility for non-criminal runaways, even though the county could get a contract from the state Department of Social and Health Services. He said the county should wait for its own sales tax revenue to accumulate before it begins construction, to insure against a state bailout on the runaway money. On the other side, law and justice officials say that the funds from the state are as assured as anything in government, and that the county has an obligation to the voters to start building a juvenile jail as soon as possible.Earlier this year, a group of law and justice officials who campaigned for the facility — including Superior Court Judges Vickie Churchill and Alan Hancock, and Sheriff Mike Hawley — presented a proposed budget for the facility to the commissioners.The officials said that plans for construction should start immediately, and that July 1, 2001, should be set as a target date for opening the facility.According to the proposed budget numbers, the county has enough funding to begin construction of the facility now. The yearly cost is estimated at $576,000 in operating cash plus $107,310 for the debt service on a $1.3 million bond for construction.The projected yearly revenue in the proposed budget includes $473,435 in sales tax revenue — the 0.1 percent sales tax that the voters approved — $18,250 in bed rentals to other counties, plus $192,720 from the state Department of Social and Health Services for a Crisis Respite Center within the facility.The Department of Social and Health Services, Churchill said, wants to put in a crisis respite center in Island County and the proposed juvenile facility would be the perfect place. A crisis respite center is a secure living area for at-risk youth. The state wants three beds at the facility for crisis respite, and has agreed to pay the county $192,000 a year to guarantee them.In all, the law and justice officials say the yearly revenue would top expenses by about $40,000.In a recent interview, Hancock said he sees no reason for a three-year delay.McDowell disagrees, saying that the county simply can’t depend on long-term money from the state, since the Legislature remakes the budget every two years. “What happens if two years down the line something like (Initiative) 695 happens and the money dries up?” McDowell said. He said the county should wait three years for the $1.5 in sales tax money accumulates and then build the facility. “I made my position clear even before the election,” he said. “There’s no way to pay both debt relief and operating costs.”With McDowell’s reasoning — that the county cannot plan on state funding — Hancock said the county “would not be able to do many things that it does now.”Commissioner Mike Shelton agreed, saying “there is no more question about those funds than anything else in the state budget.”In addition, he said the commissioners have a legal responsibility to get started as soon as possible. Under state law, the county must have its own juvenile detention facility.In addition to the bed rental, the state has also agreed to give the county $120,000 for construction costs. The commissioners recently directed Juvenile Court Services Director Liz McKay to prepare a contract with the state to get the construction costs.But there’s a disagreement about what will be in the contract.McDowell said the contract will guarantee that the county will get the construction funds from the state, but they’ll be able to build the facility on their own schedule.Hancock, on the other hand, said the state will likely require the county to begin construction in early 2001, or the money will go away.Even with all the disagreement, the project is moving forward. The judges are meeting with the county’s architect next week to discuss the design of the facility.“Our concern is that we want an architect who has built a juvenile detention facility before or has access to someone with that experience,” McKay said.”

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