The City's Pulse Newsletter
Beyond Sticker Shock: Make Them Prove It

Kootenai County Jail officials and the CdA School District are forced to talk to the public, whether they want to or not.  They must convince us to vote for their levies or bond issues in order to fund any new buildings or major changes.  That's how the system is designed to work.  

We all know what happened with the CdA School District and their two past levy failures.  Now, under new leadership, they have been reaching out to the community through open meetings, gathering input and changing methods to provide a more transparent and responsive organization. They are building trust.

Kootenai County has a big challenge ahead.  The jail is in need of expansion and the jail administration building is seriously out of space.  I know this because I took the tour last week. The staff in both areas were professional and gracious, going out of their way to explain everything and answer all questions. The willingness of the officers to answer and explain is similar to the CdA School District's recent efforts to engage the public and improve their public relationship. It's the right thing to do, but the system also encourages that behavior. 

The proposed jail bond will be a very tough sell.  It's an enormous price tag, coming in at $145 million for an intricate complex of multiple buildings. But there are detailed drawings. There is a financing plan.  And there are officers ready to explain every bit of the the proposal. 

My tour convinced me that the need is real; substantial expansion and technical updates are long past due.  The last jail bond levy failed by only a few hundred votes and stands as evidence to the importance of engaging and educating the public.  

So I asked about public meetings.  Jail officials explained they are currently taking their proposal to city councils all over the county.  Additionally, they plan to have open, public meetings with unregulated questions and plenty of time to discuss the details.  Interested voters can take tours of the current jail and administration buildings, where staff will explain the capacities and show the need for upgrades.  And they are anxious to teach the public about the cost of the new facilities, the financial impact to citizens and how sales tax from tourists can help pay for the plan.

This type of outreach is a great move in the right direction. It stands in refreshing contrast to some other public institutions in our community that do not respect the taxpayers. These groups hold back information and try to avoid the voters with roundabout funding schemes. The dollars still end up coming out of our pockets, we just have no voice. 

So, even though the new jail bond price tag is enough to take your breath away, let's keep an open mind.  Jail officials are coming to us for permission. They need to convince us it's worth the cost; that the benefits will outweigh the discomfort of paying more.  And that they will use our money in the most efficient, effective manner possible. 

Let's look beyond the sticker shock and give them a chance to prove it.  Then we can go to the polls in November more educated and able to vote for our best option.

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Dear Newsletter Readers,
When I toured the jail, I realized the conditions there are just barely tolerable.  It is not comfy. Concrete floors and walls, metal tables with attached small stools.  That's about all there is in the open area.  They do have a TV (not big) and a small pay phone that costs money (goes on their account) and limits their phone time.  The TV and phone privileges are earned by good behavior.  Believe me it is just  "3 hots and a cot".  Nothing more.  No exercise room.  Anyone who wants to be there is crazy. 
What struck me is the need for upgraded facilities, not for the inmates, but for the staff in order to do their jobs well.  The evidence room is tiny and horribly out of date, packed to overflowing with drug and gun evidence.  The storage and retrieval of important records is highly inefficient.  No modern business would function with the old, fragmented system in place at the jail admin. building.  And confidentiality?  Well imagine how private any conversation or investigation can be when the desk cubicles are pushed tightly together and a public walkway cuts right through the middle. 
As General Manager for 12 years of our 25 year-old business, I was imagining how many man-hours and  personnel postitions are wasted in this type of inefficient process.  I'd rather have more officers on the streets than running around trying to find reports in a convoluted system or get evidence from a room that looks impossible.
That being said, is the proposed bond of $145 million too big?  Is it all fully necessary?  Will it be the best use of our tax dollars right now?  Those are some of the important questions that must be answered by the officials at the jail.  That's their job and that's responsible public process.

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Mary Souza has been a concerned citizen of CdA for over 20 years. She's a local small business owner, former P&Z Commissioner and wrote an opinion column in the CdA Press on local issues.  Her opinions are her own.

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