EDITORIAL: Don’t make hasty decision on county jail site

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It’s more or less a foregone conclusion that Flathead County likely will have to find a site to build a new adult detention center that’s big enough to hold the county’s prison population well into the future. The powers that be say there isn’t enough space to configure an addition to the existing jail at the Justice Center that efficiently could accommodate future growth.

Still, it came as a surprise to many when the commissioners slapped down $130,000 in earnest money for a $2.6 million buy-sell agreement to purchase Weyerhaeuser’s “Cedar Palace” office complex and 24 acres in Columbia Falls. And it was an even bigger surprise when talk surfaced about relocating the entire Sheriff’s Office to the Columbia Falls property.

Had the commissioners done any kind of inquiry among Columbia Falls residents, they could have quickly ascertained this is a community that doesn’t want a jail in their town, no way, no how. They’ve said so loudly and clearly at community meetings that were set up after-the-fact, and they reiterated their concerns at a commissioner workshop last week.

The Columbia Falls contingency’s key assertion makes sense. The community wants the Weyerhaeuser property kept for future development and building a jail there would take it off the tax rolls in perpetuity. There would be no tax revenue of any kind if it converts to government ownership.

Columbia Falls folks also seem to think having a jail in town could be a safety concern, but that seems like a stretch. The current jail has operated at the Justice Center near residential homes since it was built in 1984 and there’s never been an escape from the facility.

They don’t want the stigma of having a jail in their community, either. That’s a weak argument, in our opinion. We don’t think Kalispell has suffered any negative effect from having a jail near its downtown and residential neighborhoods.

The matter of moving the entire Sheriff’s Office to Columbia Falls is concerning, however, because response times would be greater. The costs and logistics of transporting prisoners back and forth to Justice and District courtrooms also need to be carefully calculated.

Flathead County’s district judges voiced concerns about security during the commissioner work session, and their point is well-taken that having the Sheriff’s Office a half-hour away could pose problems. Since the Justice Center was built, law enforcement and the courts have had the luxury of being under one roof.

Other sizable Montana counties have shifted their jails to off-site locations, so it’s doable. But it behooves the commissioners to look at off-site options closer to Kalispell. County property off Willow Glen Drive seems like a worthy contender. Evergreen is another possibility; that community seemed to welcome the idea of a jail when the county was considering converting the old Wal-Mart building a couple of years ago.

Wherever the new jail is built, it will need voter approval and community support. The commissioners need to consider that as they work through the process of finding the right site.

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