County considers $15M levy for jail expansion

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THE LAKE County Jail is operating at about 134 percent capacity currently. (Jason Blasco/Lake County Leader)

The Lake County commissioners are seeking a mill levy increase that would help pay for jail and courtroom expansions, along with better treatment options to handle an ever-increasing number of offenders ravaged by illegal drugs.

The commissioners met last week to discuss the request they say will be at least $15 million. They took no action after hearing from Lake County Jail staff that more money is needed to adequately staff the facility.

“We want to get that number right, so we’re still working on it,” Lake County Commissioner Dave Stipe said.

Stipe said the levy request would amount to an annual tax increase of about $160 on a property valued at $400,000. County tax revenues are currently at about $12 million per year.

Ballots would go out in the mail around Thanksgiving and be counted by the middle of December.

Lake County officials have tried for decades to do something about jail overcrowding, according to Commissioner Bill Barron, a former Lake County Sheriff.

“It’s something we’ve explored since the mid-1980s, but something has to be done now. Montana has done a terrible job of addressing mental-health needs and that’s a big component of the people that are being arrested.”

Stipe said the jail currently holds 43 to 46 inmates, depending on the type of offender.

The goal is to build onto the current jail so the county has the capability of housing 100 inmates.

Stipe said the county has also had discussions with a private company that is interested in building a regional jail in Polson that could house female inmates.

“There has been quite the increase in female inmates related to drug crimes over the last few years,” Stipe said.

The levy increase wouldn’t include a private facility, according to Stipe said. “It would be for expanding the current jail and courtroom facilities.

There are at least one dozen inmates being held in the Flathead County Jail that would be in Lake County if not for a lack of space. The cost for a Lake County inmate to be housed in Flathead County is $84 per person, per day.

County officials also want to increase the amount of office and courtroom spaces to handle the increased number of cases.

The commissioners said the county has suffered a great increase of criminal cases, driven primarily by methamphetamine use.

In addition to an expanded jail facility, the commissioners want to establish jail diversion and mental-health programs, a drug court and monitoring devices for those who are released.

“We aren’t going to lock everyone up, so we want to be able to do things that make the community safer,” Barron said. “There has to be a positive effect on crime in the community.”

Stipe said a larger jail would house inmates who aren’t following their release or probation conditions.

“While we know we can’t lock everyone up, we need a bigger jail for punishing those who continue to violate their probation or terms of release. We just keep seeing the same people over and over violating the law,” Stipe said.

Part of the issue is Public Law 280, a federal statute enacted by Congress in 1953 that enabled states to assume criminal, as well as civil, jurisdiction in matters involving American Indians as litigants on reservation land. Previous to the enactment of Public Law 280, these matters were dealt with in either tribal and/or federal court.

Lake County has an agreement with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes that obligates the county to prosecute felony crimes committed by tribal members.

In 2017, there was legislation that would have given the tribes the option of withdrawing from Public Law 280, but it was tabled in the state House Judiciary Committee.

That year, the commissioners passed a resolution supporting withdrawing from the agreement — an arrangement unique among the state’s seven federally recognized tribes.

The commissioners argued then that the county’s declining revenues left it unable to afford the extra caseload without additional funding from the state or federal government.

The commissioners said they had hoped tribal officials would be more cooperative in this issue.

“We don’t blame them, but we’ve hoped for more cooperation, and we haven’t received any indication that they would withdraw,” Stipe said.

In a 2017 Daily Inter Lake article, Commissioner Chairman Gale Decker said they believed Public Law 280 was good for the reservation and good for the county, but their decision to sign the resolution of intent to withdraw was strictly motivated by finances.

In the levy resolution, the commissioners also said with current low interest rates, it would be easier for the levy to be repaid.

While the tribes previously supported withdrawing from the agreement when the issue surfaced 25 years ago, spokesman Rob McDonald said they are weighing whether to support continuing under the agreement.

“From Day One, the county has made it clear that their decision to pursue this has been about the dollar, so that’s been included in the discussions,” McDonald said. “We’re still in the exploration, and have not landed on a particular option.”

Reporter Scott Shindledecker may be reached at 758-4441 or sshindledecker@dailyinterlake.com.

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