Public safety threat drives bond issue

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When 61 prisoners were granted early release from the El Paso County jail in July 2003, the story made the front page headlines and the five o’clock news. El Paso County Citizens for Public Safety protested the move on the courthouse steps – and Mothers Against Drunk Driving warned of the danger of putting DUI perpetrators back on the streets. The El Paso County Sheriff’s office responded that the move was done due to severe overcrowding at the Criminal Justice Center (CJC) and the downtown Metro jail. Commander T.J. Shull from the CJC on East Las Vegas estimates that the County’s facilities housed as many as 1251 inmates in space designed originally for 833 individuals. “Law enforcement officers understand the threat involved in freeing criminals, but we just ran out of space – and it’s a problem that will just continue to grow.”

With the November 5 election just three weeks away, the outcry has subsided, but the jail’s population continues to explode. In a recent issue of the El Paso County Sheriff’s STAR newsletter, officials noted that limited detention facilities, combined with overcrowded mental health and treatment centers for drug and substance abuse mean that the only place left for offenders to go is to community jails.

The bond issue before the voters consists of two parts. Issue 1(A) would provide $2.86 million for manpower and maintenance of the expanded facilities – and would not sunset. Ballot issue 1(B) requests less than one mill to be levied to pay for the design and construction of housing for at least 800 additional inmates; an expanded kitchen, infirmary, laundry and other operational components at the Criminal Justice Center. Criminal justice architects, Riley and Johnson, teamed with local firm, CSNA, were selected for the job this summer, and have provided the drawings and design upon which to base the $38 million total project cost.

Henry Sondheimer, the county’s criminal justice planner, describes the structural design as similar to Jefferson County’s jails. “The wings are self-contained on each floor and each offers some discreet housing. We’re planning sleeping rooms with bunkbeds rather than individual cells in order to keep costs down,” he said. “And, with 860 beds, for example, the cost to the taxpayers will run $24,000 per bed instead of $70,000 to $80,000 for the typical individual jail cell.”

To date, the Chamber of Commerce has come out in support of the ballot proposal. In an interview with the Colorado Springs Business Journal, Jeff Crank, spokesman for the Chamber, said, “We decided to support El Paso County on the mill levy increase because it protects our quality of life here in the Pikes Peak region.” Fortunately, says Crank, the county purchased enough land when the Criminal Justice Center was built in 1987 for future expansion. “Fortunately, unlike cities or counties criminal justice departments that don’t have the land, we don’t have to worry about finding a location for the facility. We can focus on adding on to the existing structure.”

In addition to the El Paso County Sheriff’s office, other supporters of the mill levy include the Colorado Springs Police Department; the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge #9; Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and the El Paso County Citizens for Public Safety. The Colorado Springs City Council and the El Paso County Board of County Commissioners also both voted on resolutions to support the project.

“Even Doug Bruce admits that we need to expand our Criminal Justice Center,” says Shull. “He doesn’t agree with our financing mechanism – and would like Ballot Issue 1(B) to sunset in five or six years. That would be like putting a five-or six-year mortgage on your house instead of a thirty-year mortgage. It gets mighty expensive to repay the bond that fast. By assessing the taxpayer less than one mill each year for twenty years he counters, taxpayers would see about a $15.25/yr. assessment (based on an average household with a $200,000 home). And that amount sunsets once the bond is repaid,” he said.

Shull also notes that the CJC ballot issue appears to have been eclipsed by other issues and races, but is optimistic that the proposal will