Ada voters vetoed a costly jail upgrade. County officials think they can still get it done

On any given day at the Ada County Jail, inmates on kitchen duty are on the hook to prepare thousands of meals: three squares for their fellow inmates, along with bagged lunches for those at the Ada County Courthouse. They work, in shifts, from 2 a.m. until after 9 at night.

The problem? They’re working in a kitchen that hasn’t been upgraded since 1995 — when the jail had about half as many inmates.

Gutting and overhauling the jail’s kitchen has been one of Sheriff Matt Clifford’s priorities for years and was one of the drivers of a plan last fall to upgrade the entire jail. That plan would have included a kitchen replacement, a new road connecting the jail campus to Allumbaugh Street, and a new dorm building with almost 300 beds.

But in November, a proposal on the ballot to raise property taxes and fund the upgrade failed narrowly. Since then, Clifford and Republican county commissioners have been at odds over how to tackle the repairs — which both sides agree are urgently needed.

Clifford wanted to try again for the bond, but the commissioners disagreed. They thought they should spend already available funds to upgrade the jail’s kitchen and make other urgent improvements before asking voters for another – possibly smaller – bond.

At a meeting Wednesday, Clifford conceded the commissioners’ approach was the best way forward.

“It’s not ideal, because it will cost more, and it will take longer – the bond allows us to shorten that timeline if nothing else – but (the bond) is just not on the horizon this year,” Clifford told the Idaho Statesman after the meeting. “So, OK, let’s take the money we have and start.”

Ada County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Shem McCulloch points out that their Inmate intake area is also being used for storage at the Ada County Jail, Oct. 17, 2023. A $49 million bond to expand and upgrade the jail’s infrastructure failed in November.
Ada County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Shem McCulloch points out that their Inmate intake area is also being used for storage at the Ada County Jail, Oct. 17, 2023. A $49 million bond to expand and upgrade the jail’s infrastructure failed in November.

During the meeting, he and the commissioners expressed a shared sense of urgency to “get the ball rolling” amid rapidly increasing construction costs in the Treasure Valley.

“I think there’s a lot to be said for, if we wait and try for the bond again, and we get all the money at once – but by then, how much has the cost gone up?” Clifford said at the meeting. “Versus taking the cost of this right now … do we just start this now and try to combat some of that cost?”

Chairman Rod Beck also argued that starting such a visible project may “project seriousness” to voters and increase their likelihood of supporting a future bond to finish the job.

Bob Carney, the county’s director of operations, predicted at the meeting that the first phase of renovations would take about two years, and could begin within 2024. That first phase will likely include:

  • Installing temporary kitchen buildings and redoing the existing kitchen.

  • Building a secure corridor from the existing jail to the temporary kitchen area.

  • Laying down infrastructure east of the jail to prepare that land for the future expansion of the dorms and a new warehouse, according to a blog post by the sheriff’s office.

Commissioners requested additional details and cost estimates before they formally sign off on this approach, which would use about $13.3 million in existing county funds.

Clifford had previously argued that the phased approach would wind up being more complicated and expensive for taxpayers. He raised concerns that doing construction in phases would require duplication of effort.

“The dominoes don’t fall correctly, and (it) causes a lot of security issues and delays and money,” he said in December.

Inmates sleep in a cell in the medium custody section of the Ada County Jail, Oct. 17, 2023. The jail’s infrastructure is from 1995, even as the number of its inmates has doubled.
Inmates sleep in a cell in the medium custody section of the Ada County Jail, Oct. 17, 2023. The jail’s infrastructure is from 1995, even as the number of its inmates has doubled.

The Ada County Sheriff’s Office has argued for years that it needs more room at the jail to allow people to spread out and to improve services in its kitchen, storage area and booking center, according to previous Statesman reporting.

The jail has felt the Boise area’s rapid population growth. The number of people incarcerated is now often higher than the maximum capacity the jail’s dormitories are built for, forcing some incarcerated people to sleep on cots on the floor.

“The more people, the more tensions, the more risk for individuals to fight, to create other issues in our facility,” Shem McCulloch, a lieutenant with the Sheriff’s Office’s Jail Services Bureau, told the Statesman before the November election.

To run the jail safely and effectively, the Sheriff’s Office previously told the Statesman, the maximum number of people in custody should be 949, but the population surpasses that most days. Over the last year, the jail had an average of about 995 residents, according to statistics from the sheriff’s office.

The county uses several diversion programs, such as a Community Transition Center, pretrial release, alternative sentencing and misdemeanor probation programs, to keep people out of jail, the Statesman previously reported. In November, county officials reported that 2,000 people participate in these programs, which is almost twice the current jail population.

The expected cost of the original project was $69.9 million, with the county drawing $17.1 million from its construction fund, according to previous Statesman reporting. The county has already spent $3.5 million to buy the land for the expansion.

But bond or no bond, an overhaul is urgent, Clifford said.

“Just because we lost the bond does not take away the need,” Clifford said. “We’re just going to do what we can with what we have.”

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