A new minimum security jail is needed, but Salt Lake County should abandon any idea of turning its operation over to a private-sector corrections contractor, two county advisory panels have recommended.
However, among the remaining critical questions is this one: Would voters be willing to approve an $8 million to $10 million general-obligation bond issue - and a corresponding tax increase - to build the jail?A special jail task force reported to county commissioners Wednesday that a new 350-bed facility, described as "a barracks with a chain-link fence," is needed to house misdemeanor offenders, thus relieving inmate population pressure at the 540-bed jail.
The report also said the county sheriff's jail administration could operate a new jail cheaper than any of four private companies that submitted preliminary bids.
Thursday, the county's Criminal Justice Advisory Council approved the report. The two panels comprise judges, prosecutors and law enforcement and corrections officials.
According to the task force report, the sheriff's office could run the new jail for about $21.19 per day per inmate, or about $2.7 million annually if the facility was filled to capacity. That compares with private bids ranging from $24.64 to $48.71 per inmate day, or $3.15 million to $6.2 million per year.
Commissioner Mike Stewart has said the county would like to start building the facility early next year, but because of so many unanswered questions it's likely to be five more years before a new jail would be ready to house prisoners, advisory council members said.
The biggest question is how the county would pay for the new facility. It's unlikely jail construction could be financed from current revenues, Stewart said.
A general-obligation bond issue would be the least expensive method of borrowing, but requires voter approval and a tax hike. The county has other borrowing options available, but all are more expensive.
Those funding questions aside, the possibility that three tax-limitation initiatives may pass in November is another major consideration. Should the initiatives pass, funding construction of a new jail becomes "a whole new ball game," said Candace Nenow, the county's director of Pre-Trial Services and chairwoman of the special jail task force.
"We're really concerned that if the initiatives pass, the new jail may be beyond our reach," Stewart told the advisory council. "We may not be able to afford it."
Passage of Initiative A - which would cap all property taxes at 1 percent of fair market value, 0.75 percent for residential property - would cripple the county's jail plans several ways.
First, it would slash county tax revenues by $39 million, or some 40 percent, according to state Tax Commission estimates. Nearly every county department would have to absorb some budget cuts, and most new capital projects would be killed.
Second, the county would likely lose its triple A bond rating, making it more expensive to borrow money for any project.
In addition, Initiative A contains a technicality that would prohibit the county from asking voters for a property tax increase above the ceiling except once every two years during general elections.
The jail task force will begin investigating possible locations, designs and options for financing construction of the jail.