Jail womens wing

The west wing houses female inmates as Sheriff Mike Linder and Capt. Sam Bofto take visitors on a tour of the Yellowstone County Detention Facility.

LARRY MAYER/Gazette Staff

Yellowstone County plans to return to voters in June for help to build a new, larger housing unit for its women inmates and to make upgrades at its aging, crowded jail.

The proposal does not seek a tax increase. Rather, the county intends to ask for voter approval to increase its borrowing limit.

State law limits the county’s borrowing authority to $2 million unless voters approve a higher amount.

At its board meeting on Tuesday, county commissioners unanimously agreed on a plan to seek voter approval to borrow up to $9.7 million to help fund a new, 148-bed unit for women inmates. The proposal also includes making upgrades to the 28-year-old facility.

The commission’s action sets the schedule to hold a public hearing and to adopt a resolution at its March 8 meeting. If approved, the resolution would place the issue on the June 7 primary election ballot.

The commissioners also agreed to flesh out the proposal with the sheriff, jail commander, county building superintendent and others at its Feb. 18 discussion meeting.

Finance Director Kevan Bryan outlined several options and scenarios but ultimately recommended the county borrow no more than $9.7 million.

To borrow more than $9.7 million, Bryan said, would restrict too much future cash in addition to depleting both operating reserves and capital improvement funds.

Staying at about $9.7 million in borrowed funds, he continued, would give the county some flexibility in the future to address courthouse space and remodeling needs if the Legislature authorizes additional state district court judges for the 13th Judicial District.

The borrowed money, combined with another $7.8 million from existing county reserve, capital improvement and general funds, would provide an estimated $17.5 million for a new women’s unit and building improvements.

The $17.5 million is still about $2.2 million short of an estimated $19.7 million in total capital needs at the jail, Bryan said.

The new women’s unit is estimated to cost $9.95 million, while additional upgrades are estimated to cost $9.75 million. The upgrades include a new roof, housing unit upgrades, booking and visitation remodeling, a new kitchen and laundry, and other miscellaneous projects.

Bryan said the commissioners will need to decide what jail upgrades to include in the proposal that would go before voters.

If voters reject allowing the county to borrow $9.7 million, the county could still proceed with a 148-bed women’s unit by borrowing its $2 million limit and using county funds, Bryan said.

The county would still be able to address women’s crowding, provide for future space and provide women equal treatment, Bryan said. The county also would preserve its annual cash flow into the future for county operations.

The downside, however, is that the county’s reserves and capital funds would be depleted and the needed jail upgrades would not be addressed, Bryan explained.

Commissioner John Ostlund made a motion to borrow up to $12 million, saying the amount would give the county some flexibility. His motion died for lack of a second.

Commissioner Jim Reno followed with a motion to borrow up to $9.7 million, which Ostlund seconded.

Both Ostlund and Reno said they heard voters last year when they rejected a mill levy increase to help pay for a jail expansion. While saying he didn’t like borrowing, Ostlund said there are few ways to address the jail’s overcrowding problem without a tax increase.

The plan presented on Tuesday is a follow-up to a proposal Bryan and Sheriff Mike Linder recently outlined for commissioners at a mid-year budget review.

The jail has about 500 inmates packed into a building designed to house 286 inmates. The primary focus has been to address overcrowding of women inmates, whose population recently hit a record 101 prisoners who are crammed into one 38-cell unit.

“We all agree that this is a compelling and urgent need,” Bryan told commissioners.

“We need to maintain equal standards and conditions for our male and female prisoners. That is more overriding than just the need for more space. Fortunately for us, both are solved by the same action – build additional space that allows for equal treatment, but also for the unquestioned growth that will occur in years to come.”

Both Bryan and Linder also said investing in building locally makes more economic sense than sending inmates to the Two Rivers Regional Detention Facility in Hardin.

Two Rivers officials have been trying without much success to get contracts from various agencies to house inmates at the privately-operated facility, which is facing $40 million in financing debt. Officials from the facility met last week in Billings with Commission Chairman Bill Kennedy and other county representatives to offer space at $68 a day per inmate.

“We could send 100 prisoners down the road and be out $10 million in four years, assuming no ‘rent’ increases from what in large measure is a ‘for profit’ landlord. That number will never be less,’” Bryan told commissioners.

“If we commit our resources to our own construction, then the expense after only a handful of years goes way down. Plus it accounts for growth,” Bryan said.

“We are here to take care of the taxpayers of Yellowstone County,” Bryan continued. “This approach keeps us completely in control of staff, of prisoners, of transportation costs and of programs that can help those incarcerated. And we build something for the benefit of this county’s taxpayers,” he said.

Linder said, “People still think we can use that (the Hardin jail) and use it for free and there are no logistical issues. They have no idea how many transports we do a day. Investing in a building here in Yellowstone County is much more cost effective than sending inmates out and paying rent some place.”

Addressing the inmate crowding is “what’s important to us right now,” Linder said. The jail also needs upgrading and is work “that needs to be done,” he added.

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Federal court and county reporter for The Billings Gazette.