Gila County Needs New Jail, Court Facilities

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I need to talk to you about county facilities.

As you all know, Gila County is outgrowing its facilities. Whether we are talking jails, courtrooms, juvenile detention, probationary services, health services, permitting or ordinary office space -- we are coming up short of suitable room.

But even more important to me -- we are not providing adequate safety or security in our public areas.

We can't put these issues off any longer, and we need your help in determining solutions that are cost-effective, efficient and timely.

Let's talk jails. Sheriff John Armer and his jail commander, Jim Eskew, do an extraordinarily good job of matching escalating jailing needs with available space, but they are not magicians. The jail they are working with in Globe is of outdated linear design and requires very heavy staffing to adequately manage -- staffing that is increasingly difficult to find and even more difficult to afford. Ditto for the Payson Jail, which has never been much more than a holding/processing facility.

We also have a shifting jail population of more female inmates, more juvenile inmates and more special needs inmates, and a jail population that is growing by leaps and bounds.

We must have new jail facilities.

We need jails that are circular in design and require far fewer people to manage. These facilities need to be double- or triple-decked to house more inmates within a smaller footprint with optimally shared resources. We need facilities in Payson that can continue to grow as our needs grow.

Our courts are in the same boat. The Payson Justice Court is barely adequate for its workload, and the Payson Superior Court was initially designed for arraignments only and is in no way suitable for jury trials.

And then there is the issue of safety/security once you are in the courtroom -- be it in Payson or Globe. Again, the designs of yesterday do not reconfigure to meet the security needs of today.

We must have new court facilities.

I believe the new courtrooms need to be attached to the jails to minimize the enormous liability exposure you, the taxpayer, encounter each time we transport and/or escort prisoners through the public.

Currently in Payson, prisoners (transported from Globe for trial) are shackled and handcuffed and escorted across Colcord Road by deputies. They are brought across the parking lot and through the throng of witnesses and victims and their families who are waiting in the outdoor courtyard of the County Complex (there is no other place to wait their turn), and into the "courtroom."

I believe these court facilities need to become "Criminal Justice Centers" that house the courtrooms, the Superior Court judges, the justices and the County Attorney -- and are attached to the Sheriff's Office and jail. In effect, a consolidated Criminal Justice "one-stop shop."

To pay for new jail facilities, we will need a countywide Jail District. It could be funded by a half-cent sales tax (50 cents on $100 of purchases) and used to build and operate the jails.

A General Obligation Bond funded by property tax would be necessary to pay for the court/criminal justice facilities. Both of these measures require taxpayer approval through a special election, which can only be held in November of each year. If we do this, I'd like to discuss doing it in a way that results in a no-net overall property tax increase to the taxpayer.

County management is recommending we establish a Citizens' Facilities Planning Committee that includes 18 appointed non-elected/non-governmental employee members (Board of Supervisors -- nine members, City/Towns -- six members, Tribes -- three members) and subject to Open Meeting Law and open to public participation. This committee would be charged with discerning community needs, facility needs and analyzing the options and recommending a course of action to the Board of Supervisors.

They are suggesting that this committee organize in December of this year. We would like to see the committee spend major time in January, February and March of 2007 conducting community meetings, touring county facilities and interviewing county elected officials. They will then report their findings to the board.

The committee will spend April, May and June hammering out design, location, costing and funding issues and present a final report to the Board of Supervisors in early July so we can pass necessary resolutions and prepare for a November 2007 election, if indicated.

If getting involved in this issue as a committee member interests you, and you have the time for the next six months for weekly/bi-monthly meetings, call my office at (928) 474-2029 in the next few days. If being involved as "public participation" interests you, the meetings will be well advertised or you can get the information from my office.

This issue deserves a lot of public discussion, a well thought-out solution and timely action -- and I hope you'll help me make that happen.

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