Two Rivers: Fish or cut bait?

County officials engage with residents, promote jail expansion
Thursday, October 18, 2018

Photo by Andrew Turck

Big Horn County Commissioner Sidney Fitzpatrick speaks to a crowd of about 100 people late last Thursday afternoon on the expected benefits of expanding the county jail. The current jail has a 34-inmate capacity and has been stretched nearly double that limit with 60 people.

Photo by Andrew Turck

Jeff McDowell, executive director of Two Rivers Authority, explains his group’s role in relation to the Hardin’s Two Rivers Regional Detention Facility and its bondholders.

An estimated 100 local residents packed the Big Horn County Courthouse basement late last Thursday afternoon for an informational meeting on the proposed expansion of the county jail. Hanging over the proceedings – as expected by county commissioners and citizens alike – was the question of whether it would be a viable option to use Hardin’s Two Rivers Regional Detention Facility, which contains 464 beds and has remained vacant since January 2016. Either the jail expansion or use of Two Rivers appear to be the main options left for housing local inmates.

County officials seemed to unanimously support the construction of an expanded facility, while many of those present at the meeting expressed – sometimes blunt – reservations toward that idea.

Among the most vocal supporters for use of the Two Rivers facility was Gabe Scheidt of Kemph Land & Livestock near Custer, Montana, who held a microphone with one hand and gestured with a packet of financial data in the other.

“In the private sector, we don’t reap any benefits without taking a little bit of risk and thinking outside the box,” Scheidt said as audience members clapped. “As your constituents, we’re asking you to have that same viewpoint, look outside the box and perhaps think of this not as a chain around your leg that’s holding us down, but an opportunity for us to bring more jobs into this community, to bring more people into this community and bring more income into this community.”

Though residents and officials often disagreed on which of the two options to take, no one suggested the county continue to operate the jail at its current state – in a nearly 40-year-old facility, with 60 people held in a space meant legally for 34.

“There’s nobody here who disagrees: We need a new jail. Period,” Scheidt said. “Does anybody disagree with the fact that we need a new jail? No. We’re on your side.”

A PowerPoint presentation by the county also mentioned a third option: Housing inmates at the Yellowstone County Detention Center in Billings. According to Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder, however, his facility is overcrowded as well, holding 530 people in a space meant legally for 434.

Big Horn County Undersheriff Mike Fuss said the county has “three cabinets full” of outstanding arrest warrants, totaling to “at least” 500 people. Sheriff Frank Simpson added that some of those scheduled for arrest only will be in jail “for an hour or two,” or overnight before they post bond. With three officers per shift, he continued, “you can’t arrest 500 all at once.”

On Nov. 6, residents will decide in a special election whether to allow the county to obtain a loan of $7.3 million. This money, a legal notice states, would be used to pay “a portion of the costs of designing, constructing, equipping and furnishing a law enforcement facility” and increasing “existing jail space.” By the end, the expanded county facility would be expected to house 96 inmates. From there, Big Horn County Commissioner George Real Bird III said, “there is the potential to increase to 144 beds.”

“It allows for the safety of our workers, our detention officers, the safety of the inmates themselves and for the public,” Real Bird said of the jail expansion. “With this proposal before you, there are no new taxes planned.”

Funds for construction, according to Real Bird, would be gained through coal royalties from Lighthouse Resources – who owns the Decker Mine – and Cloud Peak Energy – who owns the Spring Creek Mine. Candy Wells, administrative assistant to the commissioners, added that Big Horn County has been receiving about $2 to $3 million in royalties annually. Cloud Peak, she said, expects to continue its work “for at least 10 years,” which also is the length of the county’s planned loan to pay off the expanded facility.

Construction and use of a new county jail, the PowerPoint presentation states, is expected to cost $34.8 million over a 25-year period. This amount, it continues, totals about $12.8 million less than the $47.8 million required to renovate and use the Two Rivers facility over the same timeframe.

If detainees were sent to the Yellowstone County facility, the PowerPoint states, transportation and housing would cost Big Horn County taxpayers $2.7 million annually and would total out over 25 years to about $69.4 million.

When Scheidt suggested sub-letting Two Rivers to pay off the difference, Big Horn County accountant Mike Opie brought up a discussion he had with his “largest potential customer,” the Montana Department of Corrections.

“They don’t want my services,” he said. “They’re looking to reduce their service contracts with people already providing services to them.

“They also would be my regulator if I decided to operate any facility at a profit.”

According to Real Bird, it currently costs the county $72 per day to house a prisoner and the MDOC will only give the county $69, so “we’re losing $3…a head.”

Big Horn County had attempted to purchase Two Rivers in 2012 and 2017 but, according to the PowerPoint, they “could not reach a fiscally-responsible agreement” with the facility’s bondholders.

The Hardin detention center is operated through a partnership between the bondholders and Two Rivers Authority, as explained during the meeting by TRA’s Executive Director Jeff McDowell.

“We are the nominal owners of the facility; our name is on the deed,” Mc-Dowell said. “It’s basically a mortgage situation, where the bondholders own the mortgage.

“Any time we want to enter into a contract to run the facility or sell it, we need to get approval from the bondholders and the trustee. If the county came to us and said, ‘We’ll give you $5 million,’ we cannot accept that offer unless the bondholders and the trustee approve.”

Early into the meeting, Big Horn County Commissioner Sidney Fitzpatrick spoke on his efforts to open the Two Rivers facility that began when he was elected to the position in 2011. His attempts were stymied, he continued, by political pushback from the State of Montana.

A 2012 article from The Associated Press notes there wasn’t a high demand for jail space in 2007, when the Two Rivers facility was constructed. In addition, it states, Hardin’s efforts were hindered further by “strained relations between city leaders” and former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, “whose administration said it had no use for the jail.” Strained relations, as explained by Fitzpatrick, also bled into the county government.

One of the most oft-cited demerits toward the Two Rivers facility thus far has been the fact that it is not accredited by the American Correctional Association. That stated, a search for ACA-accredited facilities shows that neither is any county jail in Montana.

“In good faith, I wanted to open the doors. In good faith, the two commissioners – one out, the next one on his way out – made offers. And I made an offer and it didn’t go,” Fitzpatrick said. “I even went as far as trying to have Yellowstone County help me, their commissioners. And they did and I got a lot of heat from the governor…lots of heat from the DOC.”

The Yellowstone County commissioners began receiving calls from the governor, Fitzpatrick continued, and one official referred state complaints toward Big Horn County.

“I really never knew the governor,” Fitzpatrick said, “but from that point on, there was no nothing there.”

TRA Chairman Jon Matovich disagreed with the county’s conclusion regarding the Two Rivers facility. During the meeting, he insisted an agreement between the bondholders and county still could be struck.

Borrowing a phrase from Scheidt, Matovich suggested that county officials “think outside the box” when determining how they might use Two Rivers. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement – or ICE – he said, “is looking for beds.”

“They have come to us to use that facility; that’s in the process,” he said. “If you want to have a negotiation, have it. That is an opportunity that is not being looked at.

“There is no other place in the community or in the state that [such an] opportunity sits there and waits. If you make a good-faith offer – I’m not going to say what that needs to be, but I know it’s available – if you make that offer, I know it’s considerably less than what you’re planning on spending.”

Fitzpatrick, however, remained steadfast in his opposition to Two Rivers.

“Here’s a fair question in my brain,” Fitzpatrick said. “If it’s legal, if it meets the standard and if it’s supposed to make money…why weren’t the doors open 10 years ago?”

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