Private funds could build jail

Facility would be leased to the county to operate

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SHAWN GUST/Press Inmates watch television Wednesday at the Kootenai County jail in Coeur d'Alene. County commissioners and sheriff's department staff have begun talks with Rocky Mountain Corrections about possibly leasing an additional facility to house inmates that could ease current problems with overcrowding.

A new jail could be built at no expense to Kootenai County, according to a preliminary discussion on Wednesday between county officials and a jail development company.

Under a proposal rolled out by Rocky Mountain Corrections, a new jail located somewhere in the county would be funded by private investors, who would then lease the facility to the county.

"It wouldn't be a private jail," said J. Walt Femling, president of the Ketchum-based RMC. "It would be built privately, and still run by the county."

The county commissioners and sheriff's department staff said they still must discuss legal and financial details. Officials hoped the project could be a cost-effective solution to the overcrowding at the county's 26-year-old jail on Government Way.

"I think it's worth some evaluation and discussion," said Commissioner Todd Tondee. "To give a green light and say go, we're not there."

Two possible jail models were trotted out by Femling and Dan Askenazi with Municipal Capital Markets Group Inc., which teams with RMC on such projects.

Emphasizing that no numbers are set in stone, Femling presented a possible new 408-bed jail, which the county could lease at $21 per bed daily.

He also offered a 625-bed model, also to be rented out at $21 per bed per day.

Adding on general operation costs to the lease, like food and medical, Femling said the county could operate the 408-bed facility at $9.9 million, and the 625-bed facility at $14.3 million.

The cost to build the facility is "just a difficult question to ask," Femling said after the meeting, "until we really get a plan and hone in on the size."

The county's current facility has 325 beds, according to Maj. Neal Robertson. Housing costs $72 per inmate daily, including the cost of holding some inmates out-of-county due to lack of cell space.

Jail operations last year cost $9.2 million.

The county spent $733,000 in 2011 transporting and housing inmates to outside facilities.

Officials at the meeting said the proposal could mean keeping all county inmates in the county, while not making a drastic policy change.

"We'd be doing the same thing we're doing today," Tondee said. "Now we're renting beds in Nez Perce (County jail)."

"So we'd be renting beds in Post Falls," said Sheriff Rocky Watson.

The new facility could also bring in revenue to offset the lease, Askenazi said.

Charging for Internet and phone visitation could bring in dollars daily, he said, as well as renting out extra beds for inmates from other crowded jails at $80 a day.

Those measures could net $1.8 million for the 408-bed facility, he projected, and $7.4 million for the 625-bed facility.

"Looking at it this way, it becomes a cash flow positive for you," Askenazi said.

Watson agreed the county could see a windfall by housing inmates from Spokane County.

Beds could also be leased for federal inmates, said Undersheriff Travis Chaney.

"(The U.S. Marshals) have been asking a lot about trying to get back in here, because we're regionally based," Chaney said.

The sheriff's department has reported jail overcrowding for years, especially with high-risk inmates that must be sequestered.

Voters shot down proposals for a jail expansion in 2008 and 2009.

RMC would search for a new jail site with county officials, said Femling, who is also the former Blaine County sheriff.

How the current facility would be used if a new jail is built has yet to be determined.

The officials agreed to meet again with Femling at the end of the month.

If the county pursues the idea, Tondee said, the commissioners will hold open houses so the public can help troubleshoot.

"I don't want to be perceived by the electorate that we're sidestepping," Tondee said. "I want to be able to say, 'This is a cost savings, it makes sense, we're not just building a new facility after you've told us no.'"

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