COEUR d'ALENE - The Kootenai County commissioners were cautiously optimistic on Wednesday after hearing a jail planning company's proposal to build a new, privately-funded jail.
"If we could save money and lower costs with the way we're doing things, who wouldn't do that?" said Commissioner Todd Tondee, after Rocky Mountain Corrections gave a presentation to the commissioners and other officials at the county jail.
Following up on informal meetings with county officials, RMC President Walt Femling explained to the commissioners how a new jail could be funded by private investors found by RMC.
The facility would then be leased and operated by the county.
"This is all coming under a lease and not raising taxes on your constituents," Femling said.
The chief question now, he added, "is does this work for the county?"
Even after the Kootenai County Jail was expanded to 325 beds in 2002, the facility was overcrowded again in three years, said Sheriff Rocky Watson before RMC's presentation.
"We built to a number, not a need," Watson said.
The county has paid to house excess inmates in outside jails since 2006.
So far, 3,000 county inmates have been held in other facilities in Idaho, Washington and Montana, Watson said, costing $2.4 million.
The jail currently has an average inmate population of 360, with about 50 housed at a time in other facilities.
Voters shot down funding proposals for a jail expansion in 2008 and 2009.
"Over the last 10 years, the jail inmate population has grown 6.5 percent per year," Watson said.
RMC presented two possible options for a new county jail.
One proposes a 408-bed facility, to meet the current need. The other offers 625 beds, providing both room to grow and extra beds to rent to other jurisdictions.
"You don't want those beds empty under your lease," Femling said, adding that the federal government could rent beds at $80 a day.
The county would lease the new building on an annual basis, at just over $20 per bed, per day.
That's $3.1 million a year for the 408-bed option, and $4.6 million for the 625-bed option.
A new facility is more cost effective than building on to the existing jail, Femling said. The current jail's design and technology are aged, he noted, and pose staffing and security issues.
One example: the jail's 70 percent felon population can't be housed in the dormitory beds.
"You can't put certain felons together. It's not safe for staff, and they end up killing each other," said Femling, former Blaine County sheriff. "If you add on to the facility, you continue these inefficiencies."
A privately-built facility would also be subject to property taxes to benefit the local municipality, he said, unlike a county-built structure.
And the new jail could offer new technology to increase revenue, he said. Charging for Internet visitation could bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, RMC projects.
"That right there could pay for your central control staff," he said.
RMC projects the 408-bed facility could bring in $9.4 million in net revenue the first year, from bed rentals and other service revenues.
The firm estimates the county's net cash flow at $122,799.
The 625-bed facility is projected to bring in $8.5 million in net revenue. The county's net cash flow is estimated at over $1 million.
Kootenai County is now spending $9.5 million a year operating the jail, pointed out James Anderson with Municipal Capital Markets Group Inc., who was part of Femling's presentation.
"Could you spend that in a better way?" Anderson said.
Both proposals are still preliminary, Femling emphasized.
The cost and design of the new jail, where it would be built, and which agencies might rent beds, are unknown.
RMC would invest in digging up those details, Anderson said, if the commissioners sign a letter of intent committing to the firm's pursuit of the project.
"We want to get some kind of affirmative action from the county," Anderson said.
Idea 'has merit'
There are too many unknowns and "pie in the sky" numbers at this point, said Commissioner Dan Green.
"Everything is a variable," Green said to Femling, noting that he was reluctant to sign the letter of intent. "Do some due diligence, and come back with harder numbers."
Green still praised the concept.
"Do I think it has merit? Absolutely," he said, adding that he's certain another ballot initiative would fail.
Tondee said a lease agreement could be "an easy sell to the public" if it saves money.
But he was skeptical of the potential success in renting out beds, as many Washington jails have excess space and are offering low rates.
"That's the huge number for those revenue numbers, is (renting out) the beds," he pointed out of RMC's projections.
The commissioners will want to consult with their legal department, the Sheriff's Department and other agencies, said Commissioner Jai Nelson.
"It looks like a good proposal. I think we need to continue to look at it," she said.
Sheriff Watson said his department has long studied the idea and wants to move forward.
"We've been dealing with this for 10 years," Watson said of the overcrowding. "It's been re-examined and restudied, all the options, and here's the way that'll get it done and save the voters money."
Spokane officials wary of revenue estimates
The county public defender's office favors "any measure that brings inmates closer to home," said Lynn Nelson, chief public defender.
The office, which defends about 80 percent of inmates, struggles to consult with inmates housed out of the area, he said. There are also difficulties scheduling court appearances, he said.
"It's affecting the quality of our representation," Nelson said.
Asked if the Spokane Sheriff's Department would rent beds at Kootenai County, Capt. John McGrath said his department already has offers from many Washington jails "at bottom basement prices."
"We think we have an agreement, but nothing's been signed yet," he said.
Lt. Aaron Anderton, also with the Spokane County department, warned against expecting revenue from bed rentals.
"It's a good idea for extras now, but never count on it," Anderton said.
Gooding County Commissioner Terrell Williams said pursuing a privately-funded jail with RMC has been a 2-year ordeal for her county.
While her county throws money at housing inmates in two old facilities, she said, numerous meetings have turned up no investors for a new jail.
Potentials all back out, Williams said, because the return isn't fast enough.
"We've gotten nowhere so far," she said. "If we could get it, it would be nice. But at this point, it's just been two years of negotiations, and we haven't really decided anything."
The Rocky Mountain Corrections company presented two possible options to the Kootenai County commissioners on Wednesday.
n A 408-bed facility, which would cost $3.1 million per year to lease. It also could produce as much as $9.4 million in net revenue in the first year, from bed rentals and other service revenues.
n A 625-bed facility, which would cost $4.6 million per year to lease. It could produce $8.5 million in net revenue.
The county currently spends $9.5 million annually to operate its 325-bed jail, with additional costs for the estimated average of 50 inmates housed each day in other facilities.