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A proposal to ask voters to fund a new Arapahoe County Jail received unanimous support from a citizen advisory committee on Aug. 6, but similar proposals to replace the courthouse and district attorney's offices were met with more ambivalence.
At the final meeting of the county's 25-member long-range planning committee, convened in May to study the proposals, every hand shot up when asked if the county jail needed to be replaced.
County officials have called the jail overcrowded, citing record high assaults on inmates and staff, and said that the facility is deteriorating and facing difficult or impossible repairs to critical infrastructure. The proposal also seeks to expand facilities for mental health and drug rehab programs.
When asked about the need to replace the courthouse and district attorney's facilities in the face of overcrowding, however, the response from the group was far more tepid.
“I just haven't heard enough yet with regards to the courthouse to justify the money we're talking about spending,” said committee member Thomas Tanner.
The cost for a full replacement of all three facilities would clock in at nearly a billion dollars, according to county projections. The cost to replace the jail alone approaches half a billion dollars.
Public polling conducted by the county largely reflects the committee's feelings. A survey of 401 county residents conducted between January and July found nearly two-thirds of respondents supported replacing the jail, but just shy of half supported replacing the courthouse and district attorney's facilities.
Some committee members said while they could foresee asking voters to replace all the facilities, much more public education and outreach is needed first.
“I don't believe we can pass anything without an 18-month period with speakers bureaus and funding for outreach,” said committee member Kevin Hougen, though he said the county should try for the whole shebang this fall with the expectation that the vote would fail, in order to get the issue in voters' minds.
Some committee members said there's room for creativity when it comes to the courthouse and DA building.
“I'd like to see us spend the money on justice reform to figure out a way to not have so many people go to court,” said committee member Brian Arnold.
Committee member John Gay proposed running the courthouse on two daily shifts instead of one.
“The buildings are there 24/7, so let's run two shifts, and then we don't need a new one,” Gay said. “As far as the DA's building, if we can bunk three inmates in a cell, I don't see why we can't put two lawyers in the same room.”
Others said it's clear that all three facilities need to be replaced and that the county should go ahead and put the whole proposal before voters this fall, rather than break up the votes over coming years.
“It's more cost-effective,” said committee member Carolyn Boller. “I do have a concern about the polling, though, and the education of the voters, because they're not always the brightest."
As far as funding, a proposal to raise sales taxes by 58 cents per $100 met with minimal support from the committee. Most of the committee's votes were split between a pair of property tax mechanisms that would raise taxes by between $4.28 and $8.43 per month on a home valued at $380,000.
Arapahoe County's five county commissioners were in attendance at the meeting and asked a handful of clarifying questions, but largely said they were eager to discuss the committee's conclusions at upcoming county meetings.
Jeff Baker, the chair of the Board of County Commissioners, said the board has until Aug. 27 to make a decision on what, if anything, voters will see on their ballots this November.
“We may not agree on all the elements of the proposals, but the people's voices need to be heard,” Baker said.
Division Chief Vince Line, who oversees the county jail, said he was heartened by the support for replacing the facility.
“Pursuing a jail now is critical,” Line said.
Sheriff Tyler Brown said that outside of his role as an elected official, as a resident of Arapahoe County, he wouldn't mind paying higher property taxes to replace the aging facilities.
“As a citizen, I believe I belong to something bigger than myself,” Brown said.
While he said he believes replacing the jail is crucial for the safety of staff and inmates, “I'll be happy with whatever the commissioners decide on.”
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