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JUSTICE SERVICES NEEDS SPACE - OPTIONS RANGE FROM
BAD TO WORSE

April 1, 2021

TL;DR

  • Justices Services is 100% out of space and the county is looking at options for a solution.
  • Justice Services currently takes up 65-68% of county taxpayer dollars and is about to keep spending more than necessary if a solution isn't found quickly.
  • Below is background of the Justice Services Division and why they're out of space.
  • Options are presented below for solutions and they range from bad, to worse, to worst.
  • The community can help by forming a committee, email me at ErinB@kcspectator.com to get involved.

Justice Services is Desperate For Space

Today’s email is long and chalked FULL of information, and I’m going to apologize in advance if it takes you forever to read. It’s all about the town halls that Commissioner Leslie Duncan put on yesterday about the facilities expansion project, the problem with the entire Justice Services Division, and some solutions that have been thrown around.
 
The cat’s out of the bag: Kootenai County is a nice, beautiful, semi-rural, America-loving county that people desire, and up until recently the cost of living was low compared to most other areas in the Western half of the country. Last year was like no other, and no one could have predicted the amount of growth that has happened in Kootenai County. If the Justice Services Division was stressed before C0vid, it’s bursting at the seams now.
 
Background
There’s a lot of background so I’m going to try and make this as straightforward as possible. All this background is pertinent to our current situation and helps give us an understanding of the Kootenai County justice system.
 
First, Commissioner Duncan has a background in justice services, working in law enforcement for many years doing everything from records management to serving in the reserves. When she says she is passionate about justice services it is more than from a commissioners’ standpoint, it comes from a love for law enforcement. This project/situation/agenda comes from a desire to see our justice system run smoothly, and as she puts it, “our justice system gives us a good handle on our quality of life.”
 
Justice Services is comprised of multiple divisions:

  • Sheriff’s Department
  • Adult Misdemeanor Probation
  • Juvenile Detention & Probation
  • Public Defender
  • Prosecutor
  • Conflict Attorney Program
  • Judges/Court Staff
 
Those multiple divisions are fractured amongst MANY locations throughout the county:
There are 14 courtrooms fractured around Kootenai County:
  • Old Courthouse (Rooms 1-4)
  • Justice Center (Rooms 6-11)
  • County Jail (Room 12)
  • Juvenile Justice Center (Rooms 13-14)
One court room is an actual converted 9’x16’ closet for those run-of-the-mill proceedings/arraignments that can be handled through a Zoom call.
 
Judges
  • 9 sitting magistrate judges. Two of the judges were hired in September, 2020.
  • 4 district judges.
  • 3 visiting judges that rotate 1-2 weeks every month for conflict cases.
  • All those judges are required by state law to have 1-3 staff, clerk, bailiff, etc. All those judges are split up over those courtrooms listed above.
  • Fun fact: judges are paid for by the state while courtrooms and support staff are to be supplied (and paid for) by the county.
  • Cases: According to a CDA Press article from 6/3/2020, “Civil cases in the district’s magistrate courts have increased from 11,158 in 2015 to more than 12,100 [in 2019], while district judges carried an average of 447 cases in 2019 and magistrate judges carried an average of 1,900 cases annually.” <<<<< ----- You KNOW those case #s have gone up in the last year with all this influx of residents and people causing havoc from across the border.
 
Public Defender
  • Cases: Between 4/15/20-3/29/21 there were 4,523 cases appointed to the Public Defender’s Office. Of those, 342 cases were conflicted out, meaning there was a conflict of interest and another person outside the Public Defender’s Office had to handle that case instead.
  • In 2015 the ACLU sued the state of Idaho stating that there were an inadequate amount of public defenders for the amount of cases being handled, depriving people of their 6th Amendment right to a speedy trial. Because of that lawsuit, Kootenai County hired 18 more public defenders and 5 more support staff putting them all in the rented office space on Lincoln Way. That Lincoln Way office space was rented to house 35 people from the Public Defender’s office, with these new attorneys and support staff that office space is now squeezing in 59 people. That Lincoln Way rental space costs the taxpayers about $10,000/month.
 
Prosecuting Attorney
  • Fractured amongst 4 different buildings including the old courthouse, annex building, Justice Center and Juvenile Justice Center.
 
This brings to light a few issues:
  1. Lack of space. All the Justice Services divisions are divided up between 6-7 different locations which makes it difficult to get anything done in a timely manner. On top of that, people are practically working on top of each other, in converted closets, storage rooms, basement areas, etc., and it makes the people in these divisions difficult to work to the best of their ability. As a victim or a (hopefully wrongfully) accused, I would think you would want the people you’re relying on for justice to work to the best of their ability.
  2. Cost due to lack of space. The county pays for all travel, all people (outside of judges), all extra space and it’s adding up FAST. These bandaid solutions of extra rented spaces cost additional money and costs the taxpayers more in the long term.
  3. County growth. The havoc is caused not only due to new residents but also due to those who are coming across the border to have a good time in the less-restrictive Kootenai County. Just a few years ago there was a 30/70 split between felony and misdemeanor court cases, in 2021 that split has changed to 80% felonies and 20% misdemeanors. Of those, 30% of the cases are from Spokane residents. Just the 80/20 split should give pause to anyone concerned with the safety of our area.

 
A few questions and answers before we continue:
Why can’t people work from home/upgrade technology so that they don’t have to go into the office?
That is good in theory, but this branch of government needs to be all together. There are times that the Public Defender has to be in court right away last-minute and if they all work from home who knows how long that will take. All the support staff is shared between attorneys and they have to be on-site to be able to get their sensitive work done. This last year has taught them that the idea of telecommuting is nice, the sensitive workload makes it impossible and costs the taxpayers more money than if everyone worked together in person.
 
Why are we just hearing about these problems now?
This problem has been around for almost 10 years now but it’s not a situation that can be solved easily and cheaply. Tackling the space issue is a BEAST of a project that has been discussed every now and then by previous boards of commissioners, but no one has wanted to take on this issue because it’s SO large, SO intricate, and will be costly to the taxpayers. Kootenai County is notorious for voting down bonds and levys (except with the school districts), so no commissioner has wanted to take the time to work through all the moving parts and sit down with the public to have discussions around what would be best for all parties. Until Commissioner Duncan came along.
 
What can we do about this?
Commissioner Duncan gave the town hall participants a few different options to mull over and there was some healthy discussions about the possibilities:

Option 1

Build the new facilities, called an “Attorney Center,” in the parking lot “empty space” on Garden Ave. Commissioner Duncan has been given approval by the other two commissioners to start discussions with an architect to see what building options are available for the County’s needs. This is a good start, but the architect has already come back saying that by the time this new building is open to start moving in, the county will already be out of space again and need to build a second building. It will take New Building #1 around 3 years to be built but about 20 years to pay off. New Building #1 is already set to cost the county about $20M over the next 20 years, who knows what the potential New Building #2 could cost the county – and its residents could be paying taxes for 2 buildings at one time.
 

Option 2

The Kootenai Electric Cooperative building that the county just bought will be occupied by KEC for the next 3 years through a rental agreement that was put in place when the property was sold. After that there’s plans on putting another DMV location there as well as moving the maintenance divisions out there. That will clear up some space downtown but there will still be a need for another new building, and services will still be fractured still costing the county more money. This really should be Option 1.5 because it funnels back into the first option, but I wanted to call attention to the KEC building that will be available to use in 3 years.
 

Option 3

Move all county services to one location at the fairgrounds, which will only take up about 4 of the 84 acres at the fairgrounds. Buy property on the prairie to move the fairgrounds to so that they have more space and more room to grow. A lot of this property cost would be cancelled out because the county would sell the rest of the unused land at the current fairground site, very specifically sold with deed restrictions so that high density housing and growth of that nature could not be done. This option was discussed for all of about 30 seconds when Leslie brought it up to the board back when the $20M price tag for Option 1 was dropped. The census of the other two commissioners was that they didn’t want to try and buy land on the prairie at this time because of the skyrocketing land prices and, although it was a decent idea, they didn’t see this as a viable option. A little side note: the last set of commissioners who didn’t want to go through the hassle of trying to build a building was back when the building would have only cost $3-4M. Now because of the cost of materials that number has jumped to $20M. Personally, I don’t know if the price of land is ever going to come down so this may be the last chance to buy it on the prairie before it jumps again. PLUS, that would take away the opportunities for developers to snatch up prairie land and make subdivisions on it.
 
Where does this land us? (no pun intended)
Commissioner Duncan seems to always be on an island by herself when it comes to the commissioner board agreeing with her on the more important matters. (See Optional Forms of Government and 2A Sanctuary County examples.) The only option that the commissioners have allowed her to pursue is Option #1, starting the process of building an “Attorney Center” facility on Garden Ave. Through that discussion, however, it has already been determined by the experts who build these buildings for a living that the space will be too small before people even move in – and LONG before it’s paid off by the taxpayers. Even some of our less educated officials can see that this option is not a smart, viable option.
 
The conundrum is do we put this problem on the back burner as it’s been done many times before and leave it for some other commissioner? Or do we take care of it now while thinking long-term and look at Option #3?
 
Here’s the problem with that though: Commissioners Fillios and Brooks have already said that Option #3 is not a great option because it’ll cost the taxpayers more up front to buy new land for the fair and build/move the entire county government agency to the old fairgrounds. And we all know taxpayers don’t like voting on levys/bonds. I don’t like doing voting for bonds/levys either but I would rather have our justice system working smoothly and getting people through the system in a timely manner than spending $10 less per year than I would if this project were to begin. PLUS, I know we will have to have this discussion at some point but why wait until the cost of one building is $40M?
 
But Brooks and Fillios already voted against this option, what can we do?
It’s not something Leslie can do on her own, exactly because she has and always will be outvoted 2-1. This is something that needs to happen through the community. How?
  1. Start a committee. Call it Community for Justice or something like that to sound official.
  2. Develop talking points around Option #3 that can be expanded upon and have a good discussion around.
  3. Go around to other community group meetings and present the problem and your talking points to garner support and awareness about Justice Services. Include groups like Responsible North Idaho Growth that are active and serious about curbing growth.
  4. Start the conversation with the commissioners about why Option #1 isn’t viable and in order to keep our county safe for our children and grandchildren we need to think long term, and Option #3 is that long-term plan.
I’m definitely open to other ideas, maybe there’s an Option #4 and #5 that hasn’t been discussed yet; something where we just need to think outside the box. I just know that my family has decided to plant ourselves into this community for good (we were supposed to move to South Carolina last July but…C0vid) and I want this area to remain safe for my children. The downtown bars took it upon themselves to close early on the weekends to curb the violence; we as a community can take it upon ourselves to stand up for what’s right and lobby for a full, robust Justice Services Division and show the Commissioners what’s up. Some of the Commissioners have been known to change their votes based on community support; I have faith that we can be loud together and change the support in the right direction.
 
If you would like to join and/or lead this committee please email me at ErinB@kcspectator.com. I would LOVE to be a part of this committee but I can’t lead it. I would love someone to take the reigns and start the process of community awareness.
 
One last note: the town halls also discussed bond options to pay for a new building if the path of Option #1 was to continue. Leslie opined, and I agree, that why even go down the path of bonds when the building it would pay for would be too small and useless in the first place? It’s spinning wheels for the sake of spinning wheels and spending taxpayer money frivolously. If this plan goes farther down the path of Option #1, I’ll circle back with information on the bond options. Until then, I’ll leave it out so as not to get even more in the weeds if we don’t have to go that far.
 
On that note I’m going to stop; I hope I didn’t scare or confuse you with the amount of information I just threw in your direction. 😊
 
I hope you have a great rest of your evening!
 
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