Originally published in the weekly print edition of the Yellowstone County News.
BILLINGS — Following department head discussions on Thursday, Yellowstone County Commissioners on Tuesday, approved placing a Resolution of Intent on the agenda next week calling for a public hearing to place a request on the June 7 primary ballot to increase the county’s borrowing authority in order to build an addition to the jail.
The authority will allow county commissioners to increase their borrowing limit to $9.7 million. Without voter approval state law restricts counties from borrowing more than $2 million for any one purpose. Increasing the borrowing limit does not involve a property tax increase. The debt will be paid off with the revenue collected under existing tax rates.
The resolution sets the public hearing for Tuesday, March 8, at 10 a.m. in Room 403A.
As recommended by County Finance Director Kevan Bryan, the debt will be repaid in annual payments of $750,000 over 20 years. The level of indebtedness leaves the county flexible enough to deal with other likely needs in the future, said Bryan.
A 148-bed addition to the Yellowstone County Detention Facility is projected to cost $9.95 million.
The commissioners plan to use an additional $7.8 million drawn from other county funds and reserves to help pay for other jail improvements which are needed, the cost for which bring the grand total of planned expenditures to $16.8 million. The other improvements include housing unit upgrades, a new kitchen and laundry, etc.
Even at $16.8 million there remain other needed improvements at the jail that total almost another $3 million in costs that Bryan recommended postponing for a while, including replacing the roof.
The county got a “hard” estimate as to replacing the roof at $1.8 million, but Bryan said that with some patching and maintenance the roof would probably hold for another four or five years.
Borrowing the money needed is a second approach being pursued by the commissioners, after voters rejected last year a request to increase the levy by six mills to build and maintain a $7 million, 100-bed addition.
The Yellowstone County Detention Facility has been struggling with over-population for a number of years, but over the past year the number of inmates keeps spiking above 500 in a facility built to house 286. The overcrowded conditions are especially hard on what is typically some 100 women inmates who are crowded into an area designed for 38.
While efforts to reduce the jail population by other means have been successful, the number of bookings are increasing at a faster pace.
There has been much public comment about using a jail in Hardin that stands empty, but county officials pointed out that sending 100 prisoners to Hardin will cost over a period of four or five years as much as building and refurbishing Yellowstone County’s jail. And, at the end of that time, the county will still not have a jail and over-crowding is likely to be just as bad.
Bryan recommended increasing the proposed size of the addition from 100 beds to 148 beds in order to keep ahead of the demand curve. Building an addition for just 100 beds would put the county on par with current needs but still facing almost certain increases in future demand. Building the additional space now is far more cost effective, while creating an opportunity for the county to generate some revenue, in the interim, to help pay the costs of building the jail by housing state and federal prisoners and a few for other counties.
Once the infrastructure is in place the cost of housing additional prisoners changes very little. Deputy County Attorney Dan Schwarz pointed out that it is because of that that the county would save very little if they were to send prisoners to Hardin, while it would cost over $2 million annually.
Commissioner Bill Kennedy voiced concern about the state legislature being unwilling to pay the real cost of providing jail service to the state. He said he doesn’t want the county subsidizing the state.