Apr. 15—The Asotin County commissioners fielded questions on the new jail project for about 90 minutes Wednesday evening at a town hall meeting that drew 60 people, including several Clarkston officials.
The county's proposed location for a 122-bed facility near 14th Street and Port Drive garnered most of the attention, followed by staffing concerns and how the city of Clarkston feels about having the $13.7 million project built inside city limits.
Several people, including Alice White, of Clarkston, and a businessman who owns a nearby building, spoke in favor of the 14th Street site, saying the jail will be a welcome addition in the industrial area and provide more police presence on that end of the city. However, a few people said they're concerned about how a jail could affect future riverfront development.
"This is a long time coming, and I think everyone involved has worked hard," White said during the meeting at the Asotin County Fire District auditorium. "I want to thank the jail committee and the commissioners."
The county is in the process of purchasing 6.4 acres near 14th Street and Port Drive for $1.4 million. The commissioners said the private property deal is contingent on approval of a "zone text amendment" by the city of Clarkston, and only $14,000, which is nonrefundable, has been spent on a deposit.
The issue will go before the Clarkston Planning and Zoning Commission at a public hearing May 3. If approved at that level, it heads to the City Council for another public hearing and final decision, likely in June or July.
Commissioner Chuck Whitman said the 14th Street site would save taxpayers money because the ground is flat, and all of the utilities are in place. It would also be advantageous to the Clarkston Police Department, because it's closer to the police station and transport costs would be lower.
Building the jail near the Asotin County Regional Landfill along Sixth Avenue would be more expensive because of excavation and sewer costs, Whitman said. Property in the Turning Pointe Business Park along Evans Road has been ruled out because of its price and similar concerns.
"We will get more bang for the same buck at the 14th Street site," Whitman said.
Commissioner Brian Shinn said the county received much more blowback on building the jail in the Clarkston Heights, and only one person has contacted them in opposition to the 14th Street location.
Whitman said he's already talked to a day care in the area and Walla Walla Community College, and he's willing to address any concerns raised by residents in the vicinity. The jail will be farther away from residences than its current location on Fifth Street, which is near the high school and downtown Clarkston.
Plans call for a chain-link fence and an attractive exterior, Whitman said. The inmates will be out of sight from the public, and the building won't look like a jail.
"If anything, it will look nicer than any of the buildings down there," Whitman said. "We are very sensitive to appearance."
An audience member wanted to know why the city seems to be against the site, saying it seems "ludicrous."
However, the crowd didn't get an answer to how Clarkston Mayor Monika Lawrence feels about the situation, after City Attorney Todd Richardson advised her not to answer any questions. He said the issue may go before the City Council and she needs to remain neutral.
When it comes to Clarkston's legal concerns about the 14th Street site, Richardson said the county is incorrectly interpreting the interlocal contract with the city for use of the public safety sales tax increase. He estimated it will cost an additional $380,000 to build the jail in Clarkston, based on the cost of the land and groundwork. In addition, there won't be any cost-sharing opportunities with the Public Works Department near the landfill, which was highlighted at previous town hall sessions, the attorney said.
At the onset of the meeting, Shinn said the commissioners were there to listen, rather than argue with anyone. However, he said the county has a much different opinion than the city attorney.
"We cannot disagree with you with more enthusiasm," Shinn told Richardson.
If the city squelches the 14th Street site, the jail will be built along Sixth Avenue on county-owned property, Shinn said.
A man in the audience said he senses the tension between Shinn and Richardson and worries this could turn into a "nightmare situation" involving litigation.
"We are not going to drag this out," Shinn assured him. "The longer we wait, the more it costs. That's why we're hoping to get going."
The project is on schedule and on budget, Whitman said, and the doors of the new jail should open by the winter of 2023. "Let the process work," he said.
When it comes to staffing, the commissioners said they can't spend any of the public safety sales tax money on the current jail. Hiring and training more people to work at the new facility is in the works, but at this point, the focus is on property acquisition, design and construction.
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