Salt Lake County commissioners made it official Wednesday morning - a May 23 special election will let voters decide whether $12 million in bonds will be issued to build a minimum-security jail.

The ballot question is a simple yes or no vote on issuing bonds, and county officials make it clear they'll build a jail regardless of election results."The question is not `Do we need a jail?' The question is `How do we finance it?' " says an election fact sheet prepared by the county.

"If general obligation bonds are not approved, the county may be forced to proceed with alternative financing methods."

Those alternative methods - issuing revenue bonds or making a lease-purchase deal - would add at least $3 million to the bottom-line cost of a new jail, county officials say.

But voter approval of the bonds won't necessarily result in a tax hike, said one deputy county attorney. Commissioners may decide to pay off the debt through spending cuts in county programs.

"This commission has demonstrated over the past five years it intends to hold the line on taxes," said Allan Moll, a member of the county's voter education committee for the jail election. "I don't think anyone should assume that taxes must go up to build a jail."

But already tight county budgets seem to indicate a tax hike is likely should voters approve the bonds.

The county will use three arguments - current jail overcrowding, potential legal liability and projected lower operating costs at a new facility - to sell voters on the new jail.

The existing downtown jail was built in 1966 for 300 inmates, and two later expansions increased capacity to 550. But in March the jail held an average of 670 prisoners daily, with a one-day peak of 707.

That overcrowding persists despite the county's use of alternatives to jail like citation release, probation and community service sentences.

The overcrowded conditions expose taxpayers to the risk of costly lawsuits and federal court orders to reduce overcrowding, the fact sheet says.

Confining a prisoner in the existing jail for a day costs taxpayers almost $40, while the proposed minimum-security jail would cost $25 per prisoner per day.

County officials say jail construction is not tied to a proposed building site at about 12th West and 32nd South. Commissioners would prefer to build there because the property is already county-owned, and they're fighting the appeals of neighborhood residents opposed to the jail site.

But should construction be blocked there, county officials have said the jail will be built elsewhere.

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Facts on S.L. facility

- Completion - scheduled for late 1990.

- Population - 350 misdemeanor offenders like drunken drivers, shoplifters.

- Financing - $12 million in general obligation bonds repaid over 15 years.

- Taxpayer impact - projected at $3 annually on a $70,000 home.