Big Horn County considering purchase of vacant prison

2012-10-06T00:15:00Z Big Horn County considering purchase of vacant prisonBy ED KEMMICK ekemmick@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Big Horn County Commission Chairman Chad Fenner has been floating an informal proposal to have the county buy the long-vacant detention facility in Hardin for $7 million.

The idea would be to use the prison as a replacement for the county's outmoded jail and then find clients willing to lease other portions of the 464-bed facility.

Michael Harling, a Texas attorney representing the bondholders who financed the $27 million prison, said that if the county does buy the facility for $7 million, it would be "a heck of a deal compared to what they could build a new jail for."

The agency that actually owns the prison, however, has not been included in any of the talks of a possible sale.

"I have no direct information regarding discussions between the county and the bondholders," said Jeffrey McDowell, executive director of Two Rivers Authority.

The TRA is the tax-funded economic development agency for the city of Hardin. It built the prison in 2007 by issuing $27 million in revenue bonds, but the facility has sat empty since then, despite numerous high-profile attempts to attract a tenant.

Fenner is out of town this week, but fellow County Commissioner John Pretty On Top confirmed that Fenner has been trying to find a way for the county to buy the vacant prison. Pretty On Top said Fenner is "bound and determined to buy it, but I'm not."

"We do need a jail, but we don't need 460 beds," he said.

Pretty On Top said the third county commissioner, Sidney Fitzpatrick, is the newest member of the commission and is still on the fence regarding the possibility of buying the prison.

Three members of the TRA board, including Chairman Bill Joseph, recently resigned from the board. Joseph resigned Sept. 21, the day after Harling attended a special meeting of the TRA board and outlined the county's possible purchase of the the Two Rivers Regional Detention Facility, as it is formally known.

In his resignation letter, Joseph said it "is clear that the City officials have an agenda all their own and do not want to support any deviation from their plans." He said it was also obvious that the city was unwilling to support the board.

Joseph said Thursday that Mayor Joe Koebbe and City Attorney Robert Snively were involved in the discussions between Harling and the county. Previously, he said, city officials, on their own, made overtures to the Crow Tribe, to see if it was interested in buying the prison.

Joseph said he was tired of speaking with people about the vacant prison only to find that city officials had preceded him and made their own proposals. The two others who resigned from the seven-member TRA board were Mark Sargent and Pete Zaic.

Despite their frustrations, McDowell said, he and the remaining board members are still interested in selling the prison or turning it over to someone else.

Last spring, the board agreed to transfer the title to the prison to the bondholders, McDowell said. But when the transfer documents arrived, references to the new owner were left blank.

The TRA board was told that was intentional and the blanks would be filled in when a new owner was found.

"That just didn't sound right to me," Joseph said, and the TRA's attorney advised the board not to sign the transfer documents under the circumstances.

Joseph said he spent hundreds of hours over the past couple of years trying to find a use for the vacant prison, including discussions with Fenner about turning it over to the county.

To be rebuffed and then to find out later that the county had gone so far as to make an informal offer on the prison without informing the TRA board was just too much, Joseph said.

"It really makes you look stupid," he said.

 

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