Contracted beds may be answer to Dawson County jail expansion as bond issue goes before voters

 By Jason Stuart
Yellowstone Newspapers

Plans for expanding the Dawson County Correctional Facility are continuing to take shape.
In February, the commissioners approved a contract with Schutz Foss Architects out of Billings to draw up plans for the proposed expansion. The contract with Schutz Foss is for $70,000 for the master site plan with an allowance for up to an additional $9,000 in reimbursable expenses.
The architect is being partly funded by a $30,000 Community Development Block Grant and a $15,000 grant from the Montana Board of Crime Control.
Dawson County Sheriff Craig Anderson is pushing for the jail expansion based on what he says is a steadily-increasing prison population. He largely attributes the inmate increase to “the joker in the deck,” the Bakken oilfield.
The facility, which was built in 1998, has 28 beds available for inmates. But over the course of this past year, the prison’s average daily population has routinely been above that number. Prison officials have brought in portable beds to accommodate inmates.
According to Anderson, the architect has been instructed to include possible future expansion in the plans. Anderson has floated the idea of building a “justice center” adjacent to the jail to house county courts and other state and county government agencies.
Anderson, however, is pragmatic about the chances of voters approving funding for a prison expansion. Anderson said as much at the Dawson County Economic Development Council’s February meeting. The DCEDC agreed late last year to act as a community “sounding board” in pushing for voter approval of the project.
“You’ve all been around long enough to know that’s going to be a tough ask for a 100 percent general obligation bond,” Anderson said.
To that end, Anderson said he is working to set up a meeting with state and federal representatives — naming state Sen. Matt Rosendale, Sen. Jon Tester and Congressman Steve Daines, amongst others — to discuss the possibility of securing state or federal funding to help finance the expansion.
Anderson also believes expanding the jail could be beneficial from an economic standpoint, given the regional shortage of prison space.
“As I look at our county jail, there’s an economic opportunity for us to be a regional prison and charge other counties,” he said.
In fact, Anderson intimated that the county getting paid to house inmates from other counties in Montana and North Dakota — and perhaps federal inmates as well — may be a necessity for a prison expansion to be sustainable. Expanding the prison would mean increased operating costs, primarily due to the need for more corrections officers.
“Our tax structure is such, I don’t know how we can finance a completed expansion if contracted beds aren’t part of the equation,” Anderson said.
The bond issue for the jail expansion will be on the ballot during the general election in November.

Published March 5, 2014

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