Hardin jail operators detail plans for training facility, expansion

2009-09-26T11:20:00Z Hardin jail operators detail plans for training facility, expansionBy ZACH BENOIT Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
September 26, 2009 11:20 am  • 

HARDIN - Officials from American Police Force, a California security company working to lock down a contract with Two Rivers Authority to fill and operate Hardin's new but empty jail, provided more details Saturday of how the finished facility will look and operate.

At a Saturday morning press conference, Becky Shay, APF's new public-relations director, said the company hopes to build a 30,000-square-foot military-style training facility northeast of the jail and a 75,000-square-foot dormitory for the trainees to the southeast, all on a 50-acre plot of land.

She said the buildings would be paid for by APF's "business activities," including security and training, weapons and equipment sales, surveillance and investigations, and are projected to cost $17 million to build and $6 million to equip. There is also room to expand the jail, if needed.

The land is owned by TRA and the city of Hardin and will be leased to APF with a stipulation that the company develop the land.

Two Rivers is the city's economic development agency.

APF plans to focus on getting the jail operating and filled before building begins on a training facility and dorm.

"We've got a 114,000-square-foot building that has been absolutely inactive for two years," Shay said.

Significant obstacles remain - including a lack of any prisoner contracts. The company's operating agreement for the facility has yet to be validated - two weeks after city leaders unveiled what they said was a signed agreement.

Al Peterson, Two Rivers' vice president, said the contract with APF is being reviewed by lawyers to make sure it meets federal and state laws to maintain tax-exempt status for bonds used to pay for the original facility. The original 10-year contract was signed by Two Rivers and APF, but not the bank that has the bonds.

"That's what the holdup is" in finalizing the contract, Peterson said.

Also addressed Saturday were a number of concerns residents have posed about APF. Officials from the company have been checking out Hardin, Shay said, but they weren't hiding out in the community or performing stealth operations during that time.

"They were doing market research that any good business does," Shay said.

Shay and Capt. Michael Hilton, APF's owner, also declined to name APF's mysterious parent company and did not say if or when that information would be released.

"We are here as American Police Force and we will always work with you as American Police Force," Shay said.

But the company's flashy arrival this week stirred new questions. APF officials rolled into Hardin with three Mercedes SUVs marked with a logo that said "City of Hardin Police Department." Yet the city has not had a police force of its own for 30 years.

"Pretty looking police car, ain't it?" Hardin resident Leroy Frickle, 67, said as he eyed one of the vehicles parked in front of a bed-and-breakfast where Hilton and other company representatives were staying. "The things you hear about this American Police, I don't know what to think."

Hilton said the vehicles would be handed over to the city if it forms a police force of its own. City law enforcement is now under the jurisdiction of the Big Horn County Sheriff's Office. The city and county are in discussions to deconsolidate.

After meeting briefly with Hilton on Friday, Mayor Ron Adams said he wanted the police logos removed. The decals were gone from the vehicles by Friday.

"This helps, but it doesn't answer everything until the contract is signed," Adams said. "Talk is cheap."

On Saturday, Hilton said the logos were a sign of good faith to the community that the company is committed to helping Hardin establish a city police department. It would be operated by the local government, he said, like any other police department.

As for prisoners to fill the jail, the APF representatives remained optimistic the place would start filling up in early 2010. Shay declined to say where the inmates would come from but did say that APF is in contract negotiations with various agencies.

"This facility is built for, and this facility will hold, minimum- and medium-security inmates," Shay said.

To staff the 464-bed facility, hundreds of workers will need to be hired, although the percentage of how many locals will be hired has not been finalized. A job fair will be held in the coming weeks for those interested in applying, although a date hasn't officially been set.

Shay is APF's first local hire. A former Billings Gazette reporter, she started work for the company on Friday. She will be the company's spokeswoman for $60,000 a year.

Hilton said he also had a job discussion with Kerri Smith, wife of Two Rivers Authority Executive Director Greg Smith, who helped craft the deal to bring American Police Force to Hardin. Greg Smith was placed on unpaid leave two weeks ago for reasons that have not been publicly explained.

Kerri Smith is one of two finalists in the city's mayoral race. Hilton said he asked her to call him about possible employment if she did not win the race.

Kerri Smith could not be reached immediately for comment. A message was left by The Associated Press at a theater owned by the Smith family. Her home number is unlisted.

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