Flathead County considers new jail

For over a decade, the Flathead County Detention Center has consistently operated at or beyond its intended capacity, as highlighted in a recent jail needs assessment. Numerous discussions among commissioners have taken place, and during a recent work session, all three commissioners unanimously affirmed the necessity of a new facility, expressing a preference for it to encompass additional space for a new Sheriff’s Office.

Commissioner Brad Abell emphasized the inevitability of addressing the issue, stating that the cost would be incurred one way or another, whether through taxes or the potential rise in crime and societal decline. County Administrator Pete Melnick urged swift action, indicating that details must be finalized in the first half of 2024 to present a proposal to voters by November; otherwise, the vote may be deferred to 2025.

The current detention facility accommodates around 100 inmates, but a prospective new facility is envisioned to double that capacity. A forecasting study suggested the need for 150 to 200 beds by 2040. The county has identified a property south of Kalispell for the facility, entering into a buy-sell agreement in October.

Slate Architecture and RS Security, in collaboration, conducted a needs assessment and master plan, estimating the project cost at $115 to $134 million. Additional expenses, including $23 million for the Sheriff’s Office, were anticipated. With approximately $17 million already earmarked, officials intend to continue accumulating funds. However, the scale of construction will likely necessitate voter approval for a bond and an operations levy to support increased staffing.

Commissioners emphasized transparency, aiming to present a comprehensive package to voters covering all expenses. Early projections for a $100 million bond indicate potential annual tax increases of $100 for a $300,000 home and $200 for a $600,000 home. A $135 million bond could result in a $136 increase for the former and nearly $275 for the latter.

While the community acknowledges the need for a new detention facility, Commissioner Pam Holmquist cautioned that the financial impact might be challenging for taxpayers. The county has grappled with a growing jail population since the adult detention center’s construction in 1984, leading to multiple remodels. Despite efforts to adapt, the facility no longer meets established standards.

Sheriff Brian Heino stressed the urgency of addressing the issue for community safety, noting the rising crime levels. In 2021, the detention center recorded 2,680 bookings, with 80% involving felony offenses. The proposed property for the new facility, located at 225 Snowline Lane, awaits closure in February 2024, with an appraised value of $4 million.

The county remains committed to resolving a longstanding issue, seeking to balance fiscal responsibility with the imperative of ensuring public safety.

By: Montana Newsroom staff