Officials aim to show need for new Franklin County jail

Franklin County voters can see why officials say a new county jail is needed today during a tour of the crowded, run-down jail.

Sheriff Richard Lathim said an expanded jail would catch up with the community's growth and provide for the next 20 or so years.

The county already would be able to fill two-thirds of the 335 beds of a new jail, he said.

A 0.3 percent criminal justice sales tax would be used for the construction and operation of an expanded and remodeled jail, a Pasco police station, municipal court space and gang suppression.

If the 30-year sales tax bump is approved in the Nov. 8 election, the county would receive 60 percent of the revenue, and the remaining 40 percent would be divided among Franklin County cities based on their population.

This summer, the jail has averaged about 195 inmates a day, Lathim said. That's twice what the jail was built to handle.

The proportion of felons within the jail population is higher than it was a couple of years ago, Lathim said. This reflects law enforcement's efforts to suppress gang activity, he said.

And because more rival gang members are being held in jail, it's hard to segregate them when the jail is so full, Lathim said.

About 11/2 years ago, the jail had a slight dip in population when the courts started having sentences served concurrently instead of consecutively, decreasing the overall time one inmate an in jail, Lathim said.

But the jail now is back to about twice its original capacity. "We can only push so many people in there," he said.

About $17.8 million for the construction of the jail would be generated using 0.2 percent of the proposed sales tax. The county plans to use the other 0.1 percent for operational costs, Lathim said.

Hopefully, that would allow the county to fill the four correctional officer positions cut in 2009, Lathim said. The 0.1 percent would bring in about $500,000 to $600,000 per year.

Depending on the bids received for the jail, the county could partially build two of the six pods of the jail addition. Each pod would include eight rooms, with a total of 32 beds.

The design for the expanded jail is a two-tiered building with cell blocks arranged in a wheel around a small area where the overhead master control booth hangs. An officer inside it would control the interlocked doors and monitor the cells by sight and video. The plan is to return the current jail to about 89 maximum-security beds.

The expansion also would have a two-story building in front of it. That could house Pasco Municipal Court on the first floor and the sheriff's office, information services and dispatch on the second floor.

The design of the jail will help minimize future operational costs, Lathim said.

This is the second time the county has asked voters to approve a criminal justice sales tax measure for a new jail.

The first time there was no specific project listed. The general sales tax proposal and the 2009 ballot measure failed, with 53 percent voting against the measure.

This year's jail design is different from the one proposed with the 2009 ballot measure. Moving the sheriff's office, dispatch, information services and Pasco Municipal Court into their own building rather than on top of the expanded jail will save money, and so will having the administration area move into the expansion, officials said.

If the sales tax measure is approved, the new jail likely would not be finished until late 2013 or early 2014, Lathim said.

Keeping crime low and criminals locked up is important to maintaining quality of life, said Todd Samuel, chairman of the Franklin County Law and Justice Citizens Advisory Committee. It's needed to preserve home values, attract businesses and allow people to freely move about the community.

"I don't want to pay higher taxes," he said. But Samuel said he is willing to pay an additional 3 cents on a $10 purchase, or 30 more cents on a $100 purchase, or $3 on a $1,000 purchase, for the jail.

The sales tax does not apply to the sale of motorized vehicles and farm equipment.

"We have to make some investments in our community in order for it to stay a good place to live," said Samuel, who wrote the pro statement for the voters' pamphlet. No con statement was submitted, according to the county auditor's office.

And it's important for the area economy because employers aren't going to bring jobs into a community that isn't safe, Samuel said.

-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com