Building jails is not a popular endeavor - at least not when taxpayers see the steep price they must pay to protect themselves.

In recent years, Weber and Davis counties have moved forward with multimillion-dollar jail facilities, and Salt Lake County is ready to begin work on a project intended to house misdemeanor offenders. All three projects raised considerable local controversy before finally getting under way.Now, Utah County faces a similar challenge. Its average daily jail population is pushing past the designed capacity of the facility on a regular basis, and officials must act.

A new jail seems to be necessary although officials should keep their options open to possible alternatives. But some options, such as "home confinement" or "house arrest," are not viable because of mandatory sentences required for some crimes, including driving under the influence of alcohol. Alcohol and drug related crimes make up the majority of Utah County offenses.

And past experience must be considered.

As in other areas around the country, Salt Lake County was forced to release prisoners early because over-crowding led to inmate lawsuits and court-ordered limits on prisoner population. The net effect was a revolving door that sent one criminal out the back as the courts ordered a new prisoner through the front.

Court mandates also forced Salt Lake County to build additional jail facilities to provide mental health services for inmates. Such court orders put severe limits on financing, planning and other considerations that might benefit the taxpayer.

When left to the court, inmate rights often end up superseding taxpayer rights.

Prudent Utah County officials have formed a jail advisory council to handle the planning process. A consultant has been hired and the design process is now under way.

Still to come, though, are answers to the two most ticklish questions - where to put the jail and how to finance construction.

Finding an acceptable location can be a stiff challenge. Even when citizens want a new jail, they often want it someplace besides their own neighborhoods. No matter how much time and care is taken in selecting a site, there is always someone who is affected and who resists. Based on recent experience in Salt Lake County, officials in Utah County had better prepare to deal with persistent objections no matter where the new jail is to be located.

Financing also is never easy. Salt Lake and Davis counties were fortunate to win voter approval for general obligation bonds, the cheapest form of financing. No matter how the Utah County project is financed - general obligation bonds, revenue bonds or a straight forward property tax hike - the money comes from the same pocket.

Even so, now is the appropriate time for Utah County to take action, before the problems at the present jail become more serious and urgent than they already are.