Judges concerned about security with off-site jail proposal

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The logistics of building an off-site county jail and relocating the Sheriff’s Office came into full focus Monday as Flathead County District Court judges voiced their concerns about security during a county commissioner work session.

“We have issues now because of security,” Judge Heidi Ulbricht told the commissioners, noting the need for tighter security during highly contested civil hearings. “Security is a major concern if the Sheriff’s Department is moving to Columbia Falls.”

The county has a buy-sell agreement to purchase 24 acres of land owned by Weyerhaeuser on Columbia Falls’ west side for $2.6 million. The property includes a 35,000-square-foot office building the Sheriff’s Office potentially would use.

The buy-sell agreement expires Oct. 31 and the commissioners have been racing against time to conduct public meetings and evaluate an environmental report and costs of utility connections with the site. The commissioners put down $130,000 in earnest money on the Weyerhaeuser site and could ask for an extension of the buy-sell agreement.

Several other off-site locations also are being explored, including 40 acres of county property off Willow Glen Drive in Kalispell and 14 acres of county land at the former Kalispell Feed and Grain site south of Kalispell.

Evergreen also is a possibility, though no exact site has been identified, county Administrator Mike Pence said in a status update he provided the commissioners.

“Transportation will be an issue wherever the jail is located,” Ulbricht said. “[If it’s] something in town, 10 minutes versus 25 to 30 minutes will make a difference … I’m not at all satisfied with a solution that leaves all of the courts without consistent daily courthouse security.”

Judge Amy Eddy reiterated Ulbricht’s concerns about courtroom safety, adding that while the sheriff’s department “does a good job with criminal security, we need security for family proceedings. It won’t improve moving off-site … transportation is an enormous issue.”

Sheriff Chuck Curry said he prioritizes which courtroom his deputies needs to be in, but “we don’t have a body for every courtroom.

“I know it’s a problem,” Curry added.

Judge Dan Wilson also took the opportunity to weigh in on the security issue.

“The real concern I have for security day-to-day is for civil litigants,” Wilson said. “The appearance of a court security officer has a big impact of how safe victims feel.”

Deputy County Attorney Tara Fugina, the commissioners’ counsel, said it doesn’t matter where the jail is built, “the devil is in the details.” She urged the commissioners to identify all of the potential issues of moving the detention center off-site.

There was discussion of potentially using more video conferencing with an off-site jail.

“The commissioners should pin down what each judge is willing to do as far as video,” Fugina said.

Several people at the work session pointed to the cost of the additional staffing that will be needed for prisoner transport.

Curry said the county “has looked very hard at expanding on-site,” with several studies done over the years. But the bottom line is there’s not enough room to add onto the existing adult detention center.

“Modern jail design is much more geared to reduced staff, and when you’re looking for long-term effects, staff is a big cost,” Curry said. “Adding more stories [to an expansion of the current jail] would increase the cost.

“Looking off-site, we recognize that wherever we move we can’t just walk them across the hall” like the current configuration at the Justice Center, he said.

Curry pointed out that every other major county in Montana, including Missoula, Great Falls and Bozeman, have had to move their jail off-site as those areas have grown.

Columbia Falls residents continued to voice their opposition of a jail in their community during a short public-comment session prior to the work session. During a community meeting last month many Columbia Falls residents said the county’s purchase of the Weyerhaeuser property would take valuable land that could be developed off the tax roll.

“It’s not going to benefit us at all,” Kelly White of Columbia Falls said. “You haven’t given us any information about what it will do to our property values.”

White said building a jail in Columbia Falls would be “one more black mark” for a community that has struggled with mill closures and other economic setbacks but is now making great strides in redevelopment.

Dave Renfrow of Columbia Falls asked the commissioners if they’ve hired a professional appraiser to look at the effect of taking the Weyerhaeuser property off the tax roll. He also asked for an Attorney General opinion as to whether the county was in compliance with a state law that says whenever an agency proposes to use public land contrary to local zoning regulations, a public hearing shall be held by the Board of Adjustment.

“The cart is before the horse,” Renfrow said. “You’re flying by the seat of the pants.”

Building a 260-bed facility off-site will be an expensive project, estimated at around $50 million. It would need voter support through a ballot issue that could be presented as soon as November 2018 if the commissioners decide to move forward, Pence said.

Including more community-based treatment programs with a new jail may be one way to gain support for the project, a couple of audience members suggested.

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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