Tuesday, July 23, 2024

County commissioners plan to impose levy for jail expansion

Editor | July 4, 2024 12:00 AM

At a meeting Monday morning, the Lake County Commissioners unanimously approved two resolutions aimed at financing the new courthouse annex and paying for an expansion of the jail.

A resolution of intent outlines the requirements of the settlement of a class-action lawsuit mandating that Lake County expand its detention center jail by around 960 square feet and build a secure outside exercise yard for prisoners.

The settlement also ordered the county to pay the plaintiff’s legal costs, which amounted to nearly $190,000.

To meet space obligations, commissioners opted to build a new annex on county property that’s kitty-corner to the courthouse and move several offices to the new 15,000 square-foot building.

All told, commissioners allocated $6.5 million to cover the following lawsuit-related expenses:

• $2.3 million to relocate departments to the annex, which frees up space in the basement of the courthouse for the jail expansion;

• $1 million for the new exercise yard;

• $2 million for the actual expansion of the detention center;

• $300,000 for attorney fees;

• $34,692 to replace two servers that contained stored video from the detention center, and which the judge ordered to be removed as potential evidence in the lawsuit;

• Assorted loan costs and a contingency fund, in case of cost overruns.

Under the resolution of intent, the county plans to assess a judgement levy for $6 million in two installments of three years each. The first, for $3.5 million, would assess an estimated 11.59 mills to county taxpayers from 2025-2027.

A second three-year levy would be assessed in 2028 to raise the remaining $2.5 million, “if the county has no general or other lawful funds to complete the judgement project,” 

According to commissioner Gale Decker, the levy was broken into two installments because the actual cost of remodeling the courthouse and expanding the jail is "a guesstimate" until the final plans are drawn up and engineering is completed.

“Because we don’t have a firm cost analysis yet, we don’t feel comfortable putting that on taxpayer bills at this time,” he said.

During Monday’s meeting, commissioner Bill Barron said he had estimated the impact of the levy on his property tax bill at around $68 a year.

“The lawsuit dictated our path here, and it’s necessary,” Barron said of the two projects. “We’ve tried be very responsible with our costs while accomplishing quite a bit.”

A second resolution passed Monday, authorizes Lake County to borrow an additional $2 million, plus “associated loan costs and reserves” at 5% interest, to be repaid in 10 years from the general fund. This portion covers the remaining $2 million not included in the court-ordered judgement levy.

According to Decker, the county will also spend about $2 million from American Rescue Plan Act funds to build the annex, which will cost $7 million. The new building will house several county departments, including elections, planning and environmental health, as well as technology-based services such as Geographic Information Systems used for mapping, and IT. The County Superintendent of Schools’ office will also relocate to the annex, which is expected to be completed by next summer.

A public hearing on the special levy is slated for 10 a.m. July 22. Citizens may also submit comments in writing to Lake County Commissioners, 106 4th Ave. E., Polson, MT 59860 or via email to lakecommissioners@lakemt.gov.