Eagle Co. voters nix bigger jail | AspenTimes.com

Eagle Co. voters nix bigger jail

Melanie Wong
Vail correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
Inmates hand out lunches Thursday at the Eagle County Jail, which currently houses 67 inmates, five more than it is designed to hold. (Dominique Taylor/Vail Daily)

EAGLE COUNTY ” The county’s jail beds may be crowded, and sheriffs’ and attorneys’ offices may be crammed, but Eagle County residents say they do not want to pay for expansion of the justice center.

A recent county survey showed that Eagle County residents would not support a $25 to 50 million bond issue to fund the expansion of the Justice Center, which houses the jail and offices for the sheriff and district attorney, said Justin Finestone, county director of communications.

Based on the survey county officials have dropped plans to include the bond issue on November’s ballot.

The July survey polled 405 Eagle County residents by phone. Residents were asked if they would support a $50-million justice center expansion through a sales tax increase. The county includes a portion of the Roaring Fork Valley ” in the Basalt and El Jebel area.

Far less than 50 percent indicated they would, said Dan O’Connell, director of RBC Capital Markets, the Denver-based company that coordinated the surveys.

Issues need at least a 55 percent positive response to show they will probably be passed in an election. Scaled-down tax increases did not make people more likely to support the tax, he said.

The negative response mostly stemmed from a lack of awareness about the issue, he said.

“When you’re in a resort the community, the first thing you think about isn’t the jail or the courts. Education and safety taxes tend to be more popular, even though jails and courts are absolutely necessary to run a county,” O’Connell said.

The county jail is often filled to maximum capacity and Eagle County has to pay to house extra inmates at the Park County jail, said Capt. Bill Kaufman, county jail administrator.

The county would prefer to take care of their own inmates ” plus housing them elsewhere could cost up to $1,000 a day, Kaufman said.

When the jail reaches the maximum capacity of 62 inmates, people arrested for non-violent offenses who would normally spend the night in jail are either bailed out or given a court summons, said Eagle County Sheriff Joe Hoy.

“The result is that some folks we feel should be behind bars are still on the street,” he said.

In the past six months, the jail has reached maximum capacity at least once a month, Hoy said.

“It’s pretty tough for us,” Kaufman said. “Officers are having to give summons to people who should be in jail and we’ve got people spending the night in holding cells. That’s not safe for the community.”

The jail is not the only part of the justice center that is full, Hoy said.

“We’ve been bulging at the seams. The district attorney’s building is packed, and we have more judges than courtrooms,” he said.

The courtrooms could use remodeling as well as space for the jury members, Finestone said.

The county is planning an education campaign to make the community aware of the situation.

Hoy said that while the survey results were frustrating, the county is planning ways to operate with what is available. Architects are looking at options to improve and maximize the existing space.

But that is only a temporary solution, Hoy said.

“People need to know that what we’re facing now is part of the increase and expansion of the county, and it’s not going to go away. We can do nothing or decide to go ahead with this. It will eventually make the county a safer place to be,” he said.

The survey also asked residents’ how well they thought the county government was doing and how quality of life is in the county.

Results showed that those surveyed thought the county government was doing a good job and that in general things in Eagle County are going in the right direction.

“There was nothing overwhelmingly negative in the responses,” O’Connell said. “(Eagle County) is a great place to live, but there are also great places of need in the county.”