BHC commissioners: Taxpayers can’t afford to bail out Two Rivers

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Two Rivers Authority has publicly accused Big Horn County of misrepresenting information about the Two Rivers Detention Facility. Big Horn County voters should be skeptical of the Authority’s claims given the Authority’s vested interest in Two Rivers.

Two Rivers’ legacy is one of broken promises and unfulfilled expectations. The facility remains empty, failing to deliver the jobs and economic stimulus promised to our community by the private investors who built it. Now, after being turned down by virtually every potential customer, including the U.S. government, State of Montana and numerous local counties, Two Rivers Authority is launching a last-ditch effort to save the failed facility.

Two Rivers had its chance. Big Horn County officials attempted to purchase the facility in both 2012 and 2017, but the bondholders refused to come to the table and negotiate in good faith, going so far as to deny the county the opportunity to thoroughly inspect the facility. Unfortunately, after much back-and-forth, we were unable to reach a fiscally-responsible agreement, and Big Horn County was forced to look for alternative solutions to the problems of overcrowding and safety in our jail.

Together, our community spent two years evaluating a range of alternatives to meet our growing detention needs, including housing inmates in neighboring counties, building a separate jail across the street, and, yes, purchasing and renovating Two Rivers. In the end, expanding the jail we already have was determined to be the most cost-effective, long-term solution. By repurposing 11,000 square feet of space, we can save taxpayers over $12.8 million compared to purchasing and remodeling Two Rivers.

Those who stand to gain from the county buying Two Rivers would have you believe the facility is move-in ready – yet, by any measure, this is an overstatement of the truth. Two Rivers has remained closed for years, in part due to concerns regarding officer and inmate safety. These deficiencies were welldocumented in a 2014 report produced by the National Institute of Corrections, which found numerous instances where Two Rivers failed to comply with Montana standards, including those related to the direct supervision of inmates and access to natural light. These shortcomings, combined with other factors including lack of certification by the American Correction Association, have deterred multiple public entities from placing prisoners there.

To correct the problems with Two Rivers and bring even a 100-bed portion of the facility up to standards, Big Horn County would need to invest over $11 million, not including the deferred maintenance costs associated with the facility remaining empty. While that may be enough to open the doors, keeping Two Rivers running would require significantly more money and resources, costing taxpayers an additional $580,000 more per year compared to the more efficient jail expansion proposed by the county.

Two Rivers Authority has suggested the facility’s high operating costs could be offset by additional revenue gained through leasing beds to other jurisdictions; however, previous experienced detention center operators demonstrated that the facility would likely cost the county tax dollars in the long run. Given the Montana Department of Corrections’ current strategic plan to reduce the number of beds contracted by using alternatives to detention, the county would not have the required occupancy to justify the risk. Further, the state sets the rate it will pay and will not allow the county to make a profit off state inmates. You can’t run a business when the customer sets the rates.

Local governments shouldn’t be in the private prison business and committing millions of tax dollars to bail out a privately-financed venture isn’t a responsible use of taxpayer funds.

Big Horn County shares the desire to see something good come from Two Rivers, but forcing the county to take on a too-big, too-expensive facility that doesn’t meet our needs isn’t the answer.

Chad Fenner, George Real Bird III and Sidney Fitzpatrick are Big Horn County Commissioners.