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The estimated cost of expanding the Yellowstone County jail got a little higher on Tuesday with no clear way for how the county would pay for it.

Sheriff Mike Linder told county commissioners during his 2015 preliminary budget review that the estimate this week from the architects for jail expansion was $7 million. The previous estimate was $6.4 million.

Linder said the latest figure is for design and construction of a 100-bed unit plus engineering and architectural fees.

The estimate does not include an estimated $1.2 million in annual operating costs, which includes about $400,000 for debt service.

Commissioners John Ostlund and Jim Reno have favored finding the money from within county budgets and going to voters only as a last resort.

Reno acknowledged it would be a challenge to operate an expanded jail.

Commissioner Bill Kennedy said he didn’t see how the county could come up the money.

Even if the county scraped together money from reserves, its general fund and borrowed money, it would still be about $3 million short, he said.

The county, Kennedy said, also is considering “a hefty building schedule” for 2015 that includes a $1.5 million courthouse remodel to make more room for the county attorney, a $1 million new agricultural building at MetraPark; and a new Extension Service building at MetraPark.

“This could put us on a real slippery slope,” Kennedy said.

Linder called the jail expansion “a necessity” and suggested the county reconsider the new agricultural building. “That jail is going to cost us some day,” he said.

Jail expansion has been put on “the back burner” for years and needs to become a priority, Linder said.

The goal is to relieve crowding, especially for female prisoners, not to add more inmates, Linder said.

The jail will continue to use programs, like the 24/7 and labor detail, to reduce the population and to keep the daily census at about 430 inmates to 460 inmates, the sheriff said. The rated capacity is 286 inmates.

The jail currently has 80 female inmates and a 100-bed unit would allow the management to classify them based on behavior, Linder said. On Tuesday, 11 female inmates were sleeping on the floor because of lack of space.

“It’s just not safe,” said Sam Bofto, jail commander.

If the women were moved to a new 100-bed unit, the jail would use the old space for other inmates to relieve pressure, not to bring in another 100 inmates, Linder said.

The jail would continue to contract to board prisoners for other jurisdictions, like the state and federal government, officials said.

Kennedy said the contracts provide an important revenue source. “People just need to know it’s all a part of the stream flow,” he said.

The jail houses about 107 prisoners a day, or about a quarter of its population, for other jurisdictions. The preliminary budget estimates it will receive $3.3 million in prisoner contracts, an increase from the $2.9 million in the current budget.

While Ostlund said he was not prepared to cut MetraPark’s new agricultural building, he backed spending $650,000 for a new jail control system regardless of what happens with the jail expansion.

“It’s broke. It’s just shot,” he said.

Commissioners are unlikely to have an answer to the jail expansion issue for a few months, when final budget numbers are ready, Ostlund said.

The county also will have more information on tax protest settlements with Charter Communications, which recently settled a dispute with the state Department of Revenue, its tax revenues and its taxable value, Turner said.

Aside from the jail expansion, the overall sheriff’s budget is in good shape, Turner said. “Everything is tracking pretty well,” he said.

The proposed total revenue budget of $18.2 million is up a little from the current budget of $18.14 million. The sheriff’s reserve fund of $5 million is “adequate,” Turner said.

The sheriff also is seeking three new detention officers. The sheriff’s office currently has a total of 156 full-time equivalent employees.



Federal Court, Yellowtone County Reporter

Federal court and county reporter for The Billings Gazette.