More funds needed

The Ward County Commission plans to ask voters for more money to complete a jail expansion and courthouse renovation.

Meeting Tuesday with architects and a citizens committee, commissioners decided to draft a ballot measure for either the November general election or a January special election. Voters would be asked to raise the county’s indebtedness beyond the $39.3 million agreed upon two years ago when voters approved a half cent sales tax to fund a county office building, jail, courthouse renovation and road and bridge repair.

It’s not just that costs are higher than anticipated back in 2012. The need for jail space also is growing faster than anyone expected. Rather than build a structure with room to expand later, the jail needs the extra space now, commissioners determined.

“What it comes down to is if we put in 50 beds, we are going to be full the day we are open,” commission chairman Jerome Gruenberg said.

Commissioners are waiting to get updated cost estimates to determine how much more money will be needed than originally planned. If voters agree to raise the county indebtedness, the additional cost would continue to be covered by the existing half cent sales tax. The tax, which has already raised $8.2 million since it began in early 2013, is set to expire in December 2022, or earlier if adequate funds are raised before that date. Commissioners expect the tax will raise enough money before the deadline, even if indebtedness is raised. However, the tax would be in place longer.

“We certainly don’t want to be in a position of building something that’s inadequate, and without going to the voters, you are going to build something that, number one, is inadequate,” said John MacMartin, a member of the citizens committee. “If the public takes the time to understand what was going on, that would be seen as a greater waste of money than trying to do it right.”

Dan Deaver of Berthold, a second member of the citizens committee, said he helped persuade voters to pass the county measure two years ago with the thought that residents would be seeing many of the construction changes completed already. It’s difficult for him to go back to the public now and say more money is needed when little has been done with the jail and courthouse and nobody knows how much the sales tax is even generating.

“If you guys are going to do it, it better be a little bit more up front and better be more specific,” he said.

The 2012 estimate for the jail expansion was $10.2 million, which later turned into $15 million as better cost estimates became available. By expanding the jail further, costs would rise above the county’s borrowing limit. Commissioners also are finding that courthouse renovation costs are grossly under-estimated. Much more work will be required than originally thought to correct the building’s deficiencies.

To place a measure on the ballot, the county needs to get new cost estimates so the state’s attorney can draft an ordinance based on those costs. The county would need to have two readings of the ordinance 20 days apart and must hold a public hearing before it can place a measure on the ballot.

With the deadline for getting a measure on the November ballot fast approaching, commissioners were concerned that the process won’t happen quickly enough. Commissioners also had concerns about rushing into an election and not giving voters enough time to educate themselves on the matter, particularly when there are other issues and candidates that will be vying for voter attention. If unable to make the general election ballot, commissioners are prepared to budget for a January special election.

State’s attorney Rozanna Larson also advised commissioners to go back to the voters for approval because of the proposed change to move the sheriff’s department into the new building.

Architects presented a jail expansion design that included a new sheriff’s office on the lowest level and 25 cells on the first floor, with another 25 cells on an upper level that would be open for cell-monitoring by staff on the first floor.

The commission would like to add another floor with a mezzanine in the jail expansion to be constructed north of the present jail. It would add another 50 cells.

Most cells would have two beds. The full four tiers of cells could provide a total jail capacity of about 184 beds, which includes the 104 beds in the existing jail.