Salt Lake County voters are scheduled go to the polls May 23 in a special bond election designed to raise $12 million for a new and badly needed minimum security jail. By every consideration, this is a project that deserves overwhelming approval.

The bonds would finance construction of a dormatory-type facility at 3300 South and 1200 West that would house low-risk inmates jailed for misdemeanors like drunken driving and other traffic offenses, shoplifting or bad checks. The jail would have 360 beds and could be expanded in a second phase to 550.Arguments for the jail are persuasive:

-The existing county jail at the Metropolitan Hall of Justice is badly overcrowded. Originally designed for 550 inmates, it has had as many as 707 last month, with the monthly average at 670.

Those figures cause problems for security and raise the possibility of lawsuits by disgruntled inmates - lawsuits that have led judges to increasingly hit jails with fines and court-ordered expansions. The overcrowding also means that people who really should be in jail are set free because there is no room for them behind bars.

About half the inmates currently housed in the jail could be moved to the new minimum security site, thus making more room for those who need to be incarcerated in a secure facility.

-A new minimum security jail would be built on land already owned by the county. The dormitory pods would enable prisoners to be housed at a per-inmate cost of $25 per day, instead of the $40 a day cost at the present jail - significant savings. In addition, the new facility would help provide kitchen and laundry services to the Metropolitan jail.

-Given the benefits to the county, the cost of the general obligation bonds is remarkably low, about $3 a year on a $70,000 home, or $45 over the 15-year life of the bonds. They might be paid off even earlier. The county's excellent bond rating is a real money-saver.

Opposition to the jail comes principally from two sources. One is the South Salt Lake Zoning and Planning Commission, which noted that the property originally was purchased as the site for a park. But the South Salt Lake City Council has approved the jail location.

The second source of opposition is - as can be expected - from residents near the proposed jail site. There are the usual fears about such a facility, but the type of inmates don't seem to pose any real threat.

There are only 18 homes nearby. Most of the area is vacant or zoned for light industry. The county has offered to purchase the existing homes at fair market value if the owners feel they absolutely have to move away from the proposed jail.

One other issue has been raised about the jail being built in the Jordan River flood plain. But as Terry Holzworth, public works director and a flood expert of considerable standing, points out, flooding is unlikely.

Based on 100 years' worth of information, the worst possible case could only cause about a foot of water at the jail site. And the jail is to be constructed on fill that would be three feet high.

Unfortunately, opponents continue to seek to obstruct the project. The South Salt Lake City Council has agreed to reopen the issue and hold another hearing. Yet such a hearing seems unlikely to produce any compelling reasons not to build the jail at the planned site.

The jail project would meet an urgent need and do so relatively cheaply. It ought to be resoundingly endorsed by Salt Lake County voters.