Arapahoe County voters will decide whether to raise property taxes to build a new jail, after county commissioners unanimously decided on Aug. 27 to send the matter to the ballot this fall. If …
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Arapahoe County voters will decide whether to raise property taxes to build a new jail, after county commissioners unanimously decided on Aug. 27 to send the matter to the ballot this fall.
If approved, the measure would raise funds to pay for a $464 million jail to replace the current facility, built in 1986. Officials say the county jail, near the Broncos Training Center in Centennial, is worn out, overcrowded, dangerous to staff and inmates, and inadequate to host modern rehabilitation programming.
A new facility would incorporate a safer booking and release center, according to county documents, as well as more beds, new medical and behavioral units, and additional classroom and multipurpose space.
“It would be a better use of taxpayer money,” Sheriff Tyler Brown said at a special meeting of the county commissioners to approve the ballot measure. “Inmates who receive comprehensive treatment are less likely to reoffend. We want to get away from warehousing individuals and into treatment.”
The measure, dubbed Ballot Issue 1A, would increase the county's mill levy by 3.4, and would increase property taxes by $19.08 per $100,000 of assessed property value, or about $68 per year on a home valued at $380,000. The increase would still leave Arapahoe County's mill levy — currently at 13.301 — the lowest in the metro area, according to county documents.
In the jailhouse now
The current county jail has reached its limits, Brown said. Originally built to house 360 inmates, it has seen expansions over the years to a maximum capacity of 1,458, through a combination of new wings and increasing the capacity of some cells from one to three. But other jail functions, including the infirmary, kitchen, and booking and release center, are all still built with the original capacity in mind, and are landlocked in the center of the facility with no room to grow.
The booking and release center in particular presents a danger to correctional officers and inmates, Brown said. Originally built to accommodate 29 inmates, it now regularly sees up to 80 at a time, and assaults are climbing. Assaults on staff have risen 120% in the last three years in the jail overall, Brown said.
The jail also has only one classroom, according to the resolution passed by commissioners, and four small multipurpose rooms, which the resolution calls inadequate to meet the variety of educational, spiritual, mental health and addiction programs now offered by the jail.
Further, approximately 40% of the jail population has mental health needs, the resolution says, and only 20 cells are available to address severe medical and mental health needs.
The current jail's plumbing and electrical systems are stretched beyond their limits, Brown said in a June tour of the jail, and are largely only accessible through subfloor tunnels that are filling with mud. Upgrading them would require taking large sections of the jail offline, Brown said.
The county is legally obligated to provide a suitable jail, Brown said. Of the more than 1,100 inmates in the facility on the day of the hearing, nearly three-quarters were pre-trial and had not been convicted of a crime, he said.
“The average stay in our facility is 22 days,” Brown said. “We relase upwards of 16,000 people back into the community every year. We want them to have accessed rehabilitative programming in that time. It's a community safety issue.”
New and improved
If approved, the new jail would be built adjacent to the current facility on land already owned by the county. Though the total capacity would only increase from 1,458 to 1,612, officials say the new facility would allow far more separation of high-risk populations. The jail currently holds around 1,100 inmates at a time, said Chief Vince Line, who oversees the jail, with the extra capacity necessary to keep violent offenders apart.
Talk of problems with the jail dates back to the county's Judicial Facility Review Committee of 2002, according to county documents. That committee also recommended a slate of judicial reforms to help reduce the jail population, which county officials say have successfully diverted offenders through alternative sentencing and improved court date notification procedures.
Long-range planning conducted by the county beginning in 2016 studied replacing the jail, as well as the adjacent courthouse and district attorney's offices. The total price tag to replace all three, according to county documents, was around a billion dollars.
A 25-member, bipartisan long-range planning committee convened in 2019 issued a report in August expressing strong support for replacing the jail, but found more skepticism toward replacing the court and DA's offices.
“We heard them loud and clear,” said Jeff Baker, the chair of the board of county commissioners. “If this passes, the money we'll save through reduced maintenance of the jail could be put toward the initial phases of designing a new courthouse.”
Baker said it's too soon to say how long it would take to build a new jail, though a master plan previously presented to the commissioners contains a 10-year timeline.
Paying for it
Funding a new jail out of current county revenues isn't possible, several commissioners said.
“We have cut everywhere we can cut,” said Commissioner Kathleen Conti. “We have deferred projects. It took us years to catch up after the recession. The costs of equipment, construction and wages just keep climbing.”
The county has not asked for a property tax increase since 1991, Conti said, and the state Gallagher Amendment means that even as property values skyrocket in the metro area, taxing entities collect diminishing portions of that value. Voters passed a county sales tax hike in 2003.
Baker agreed that he doesn't see another way to fund the project.
“When we started talking about this, I said a tax increase was our last resort, and that's what happened,” Baker said. “We've looked under every rock and between the seat cushions. We can't find money to do this in what we have. It's not there.”
Sheriff Brown said he's optimistic about the measure.
“This is a culmination of three sheriffs' administrations coming to a head,” Brown said. “This started with Sheriff (Grayson) Robinson, the torch was handed to Sheriff (Dave) Walcher, and now it's been passed to me. It's time we address how inmates are treated, and I hope we can get this done.”
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