Estimates of more than $50 million in construction costs have been suggested by the Flathead County Commission as necessary to provide sufficient safety, security and space for a new jail and sheriff’s office. To most of us, that price tag seems extreme. The Flathead County jail takes inmates from as far south as Rollins and south of Bigfork and north to Glacier National Park and Olney. The current location for the jail has worked well in large part due to its proximity to the county courts and public attorneys, as the inmates are high utilizers of our legal system. Since the jail is housed in the same building with the courts, transporting inmates is very efficient. However, it has become clear that the jail met its useful life years ago and a separate facility is necessary. The residential area where the jail is currently located apparently doesn’t have adequate room to accommodate a new jail and sheriff’s office. Thus, the search for a new location.
Pursuing the purchase of private land for such a purpose doesn’t make fiscal sense: Every time a government entity buys a piece of property, that property is taken off of the tax rolls and provides no tax revenue to the city, county or schools where the property is located. Pockets of county-owned land exist in the city of Kalispell. These parcels are not taxed and add nothing to Kalispell’s general fund. Also adding nothing to the city of Kalispell tax rolls are the remaining lots from an albatross exemplifying poor planning: the Old School Station subdivision. That ill-fated development almost bankrupted the city, and the city ultimately reacquired the remaining lots after expending reserve funds, hoping it would be successful in selling the lots itself. Unfortunately, the city has not been able to offload any of the lots since their acquisition.
The Old School Station development sits south of Kalispell approximately 4.1 miles from the current location of the Flathead County jail, sheriff’s office, district court, justice court, county attorney’s office and public defenders office. If the county would agree to transfer title to the “in-city” property it owns to the city, the city in exchange could transfer title to the county for the remaining lots at Old School Station. Certainly, the pockets of county property in city limits are more saleable than the lots languishing at Old School Station. Further, the funding generated from sales could replenish the reserve fund and generate ongoing tax revenue. More importantly, the jail and sheriff’s office would be located in close proximity to the judicial system that serves the inmates, limiting transportation costs borne by both the county and state. To the extent that the city and county have already begun examining this opportunity, it’s worthy of full investigation.
Tammi Fisher is an attorney and former mayor of Kalispell.
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