County will mail jail, courthouse levy ballots Jan. 8

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Ballots for the Lake County jail levy request will be mailed Wednesday, Jan. 8.

The Lake County Commissioners are seeking a mill levy increase for jail and courtroom expansions, along with better treatment options to handle an ever-increasing number of offenders.

The commissioners held several public meetings throughout the county, giving a slide presentation explaining the ongoing difficulties with the current detention facility.

According to Lake County election administrator Katie Harding, ballots are only mailed out to voters with currently active status. All others eligible to vote may register and vote in person at the elections office in the courthouse in Polson, up to and including election day. The office is open 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday through Friday, and 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. election day, Jan. 28, 2020.

Ballots must be signed on the outside envelope by the voter. This envelope is separated from the ballot inside keeping the ballot private.

Signed envelopes with ballots must be received in the elections office by 8 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020, to be counted, no matter when they are postmarked.

Harding can be reached at 883-7269 for more information.

According to the presentation given last fall, as of 2017, Lake County had the highest rate in Montana of drug offenses and violent crimes per 1,000 people and ranked in the top six for rates of partner/family member assault, burglary, and other property crimes.

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

The current jail was built in the 1970s, with an addition built in 1997. It holds 43 to 46 inmates, depending on the type of offender.

At any given time, Lake County pays Flathead County $84 per person to house about a dozen inmates in the Flathead County Jail, due to lack of space in there.

The number of women incarcerated has increased significantly. They now make up about one-third of the population. The existing facility does not adequately house women separately, and is not compliant with other current standards and space requirements.

Many building elements pose safety and security risks for staff, and there is a lack of adequate evidence storage, among other problems.

Increased office and courtroom space are needed to handle the increased number of cases.

The goal of the new facility would be to house up to 100 inmates with up-to-date design standards, more staff and an increased focus on mental health care.

“Mental-health needs are a big component of the people that are being arrested,” said Commissioner Bill Barron, a former Lake County Sheriff.

County courts do what they can to implement alternatives to jail. Drug court, work details, and pre-trial monitoring are currently available options.

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

“We want to be able to do things that make the community safer,” Barron says. “There has to be a positive effect on crime in the community.”

Decker explained that the levy request is in two parts. One request is for up to $1.5 million per year for 20 years. This would pay off the loan that the county would secure to construct a new detention facility, which is estimated to cost up to $15 million before interest.

The commissioners intend to put out a request for proposals that would meet requirements for size, number of beds, and other parameters. From these proposals it would be decided whether it is better to build an entirely new structure or build onto the existing jail.

The other request is for up to $1 million per year for 20 years for additional operating expenses for an expanded facility.

This would include more staff, meals, mental health evaluations, and other costs.

“We will levy only the amount we need each year to pay the additional costs, up to a million dollars.”

The wording on the ballot reads:

“Shall the Lake County Commissioners be authorized to levy the amount of Two Million Five Hundred Thousand Dollars, ($2,500,000) annually, approximately 37.33 mills annually for a period of twenty years, to fund a Criminal Justice Facilities-Operations Levy?”

If the levy passes, property owners can expect a tax increase of approximately $50.40 per $100,000 of property value per year for 20 years.

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