Still Hoping for a Contract, Hardin Fixes Pipes in Jail

By Beacon Staff

BILLINGS – Hardin’s economic development authority is patching broken pipes in the city’s never-used Two Rivers Detention Center in hopes of finally landing a contract for the 464-bed jail, the agency’s executive director said Wednesday.

Two Rivers Authority’s Jeff McDowell said pipes froze and burst in about a dozen places when the heat was turned off temporarily last winter.

“Who wants to lease a facility that you can’t flush the toilets?” McDowell said. “We’re trying to make it so if someone does want to move in there, it’s essentially operational.”

The plumbing problems are the latest in a string of setbacks for the $27 million jail, which was completed in 2007 and promoted as a means of jump-starting rural Hardin’s struggling economy.

Last year, the city signed a preliminary agreement to lease the jail for 10 years to a California company, American Police Force. That deal fell apart after the company’s lead figure, Michael Hilton, was revealed to be a convicted con artist.

Even before then, Hardin’s efforts were aggravated by strained relations between city leaders and Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

McDowell said he and Hardin Mayor Kim Hammond recently met with Schweitzer and apologized for past accusations that the governor stymied the city’s attempts to find inmates.

Schweitzer said Wednesday that “the community needed someone to blame” and he remained willing to work toward finding inmates.

But the governor cautioned that the jail remained a tough sell. Montana and many other states are trying to reduce their prison populations and put more criminal offenders into alternative programs.

“We’ve got the same problem — wrong facility, wrong time,” he said. “As a minimum-security institution, as a place for drug and alcohol offenders, it probably has some role, but it’s going to take some brainstorming. I just don’t have any prisoners for them.”

McDowell said efforts to contract for inmates would move slowly until the broken pipes are repaired, which could take another 30 days.

The first leaking pipes, discovered in December, were connected to the fire sprinklers. Those were repaired in January for about $5,000 in January, McDowell said.

More leaks were discovered in late spring. Several have yet to be fixed, and McDowell said the combined price tag for all the repairs would be about $8,000.

The burst pipes were confined to administrative areas of the jail and caused no major damage to the 92,000-square foot structure, said Two Rivers Authority acting president Albert Peterson.