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McDonald: Site never intended as justice facility home

by CAROLINE LOBSINGER
Staff Writer | February 13, 2022 1:00 AM

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SANDPOINT — A county-owned site near the fairgrounds was never intended to be the home of a new justice facility, according to Bonner County Commissioner Dan McDonald.

The commissioner's comments follow a presentation by Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler on Jan. 29 criticizing the county's memorandum of understanding with Sandpoint Community Center Corporation to construct an $8 million ice rink on county-owned land. He called on residents to demand the county rescind its agreement with the nonprofit group so that the site could be used for what he said it was intended — a new justice center.

However, contrary to what Wheeler said Jan. 29, McDonald said there are no records of that site being set aside for a justice center or jail expansion.

"The sheriff claims we have amnesia from a claimed 2008 decision that there is no record of," McDonald said. "First of all, none of us were in office in 2008, there was no decision made and if there were it couldn't encumber this board."

While he didn't attend the Jan. 29 presentation, McDonald said based on information Wheeler presented at county meeting on the fairground, Wheeler has taken "creative license with what he calls his facts."

The dispute stems from an Oct. 26 decision by county commissioners to enter into a memorandum of understanding with SCCC to construct an $8 million ice rink on county-owned land.

The agreement does not sell the land the ice rink will be constructed upon, nor will the county taxpayers need to contribute to the cost of the rink. The project would be funded by the non-profit organization.

A memorandum of understanding between the groups was drafted over the summer and fall by the groups to build the ice arena on the site. A final draft was approved by the county’s legal representative in October, and the MOU was approved by the county commissioners later that month.

Since that decision, Wheeler has sharply criticized commissioners and the decision, contending at one point it was an attempt to "defund the police." He also contends the move "gives away" county land and forces taxpayers to fund an unnecessary private facility.

Nothing, McDonald said, could be further from the truth.

While Wheeler contends the county is giving away the land, McDonald said the reality is that the county maintains ownership of the property and taxpayers bear no expense for the facility. All costs for construction and operation would be born by SCCC. And, if the ice rink fails, the county retains all improvements by SCCC at no cost, McDonald said.

While in Wheeler's view, the site is ideal for a justice center, McDonald contends the site at the west end of the county-owned property is "logistically problematic." A better location is located directly behind the jail, allowing for expansion if or when it is needed as well as construction of secure tunnels to allow for prisoner transport from both the existing jail as well as juvenile detention.

"Right now, the jail population is low and if we do start pressing toward a far higher level of occupants, the sheriff could elect to stop taking state and federal prisoners that, in my opinion, this level of offender should never be placed in a county jail," McDonald said. "Our jail is not a federal prison or state penitentiary. Why expose the citizens of this county to that level of offender?"

Given the costs, McDonald said Wheeler's hopes for a $40 million-plus new jail don't make fiscal sense when the current facility is only 26 years old and is designed to be added onto.

McDonald said it would cost an estimated $80 to $100 million to build a justice facility that would house the courts, Prosecutor's office and Public Defender's office and allow for future expansion of all three.

"I doubt we could get voters to approve the cost let alone the fact that our budget wouldn't allow us to even make the payments on the loan," McDonald said. "That being said, we do have a solid plan for its location that would include secure tunnels from both the jail and juvenile detention to better protect our officers and reduce transport costs and the liability associated with that."

Despite Wheeler's animus toward the ice rink being located on the site, McDonald said he wasn't always a fan of it housing a justice center.

"His comment on the record was, "that would be a horrible place for a justice facility," the commissioner said. "We have recently gone back and listened to that meeting and found that gem. Of course the sheriff is insisting that is where the Justice Facility should go … looks like he has some amnesia."

Comments shared by Wheeler from County Prosecutor Louis Marshall and former commissioner Mike Nielsen are from old emails, McDonald said, adding they don't reflect recent conversations with the men.

Both have told him they like the location proposed by commissioners, agreeing it offers superior logistics, better security and improved officer safety during prisoner transport.

"I have met with both Mike and Louis and they are fine with the decision and now see how trying to build a justice facility in the area of where ice rink will go would be a bad decision," McDonald said.

In the 2019 study referenced by Wheeler as detailing the poor condition and inadequacies of the current jail, nowhere does Integris indicate the facility would not meet the county's needs. Instead, the architectural firm came up with a plan to double capacity and remodel the kitchen as well as address other improvements identify in the feasibility study. The total at the time was $11 million — an amount the county could fit into the budget, McDonald said.

In that feasibility study, McDonald said expansion of the jail was among the topics discussed due to Wheeler's contention the jail was overcrowded. What came out during that study was that the sheriff's office was accepting both federal and state prisoners — and that the compensation was below the actual daily cost, the commissioner said.

When an estimate was done on the number of actual county prisoners, McDonald said that number was around 50 at the time of the study and has since dropped.

"If overcrowding was an issue, the sheriff could immediately stop taking state and federal prisoners to remedy that problem," he added. "He has chosen not to stop that action."

Despite Wheeler's claims commissioners are trying to hide what the county is doing, McDonald said an informational meeting about the ice rink remains on the table. However, the date was postponed to give the county's attorney time to revise the MOU with SCCC to add in a 5% ticket stipend.

"That was left out to the original agreement however it was part of the negotiations," the commission chairman said, "and because SCCC is not an adversarial party, they were happy to accept the amendment to the agreement."

Once those changes are done, commissioners will hold an information meeting only "as the sheriff has put out a great deal of misinformation," he said.

While Wheeler contends commissioners failed to properly notice meetings on the ice rink, McDonald said the county prosecutor has advised all requirements were met. He also noted that state statutes are clear on the duties of each office.

"All constitutionally elected officers have specific authority and we don't step on the other elected authority yet the sheriff seems to want to step on ours with this odd requirement to have to consult with him in order to do our sworn duty," McDonald said.

As to an outdoor ice rink in Ponderay, McDonald said the county was surprised by the city's decision to support an open ice rink at the Field of Dreams. He noted the county's plans had been discussed at a monthly all-county meeting for the past year.

"These meetings were specifically designed to have open conversations between all the cities and the county so we had an idea of each entity's direction," McDonald told local media. "Ponderay didn't inform us of their intent until well after we had approved the MOU. It's also surprising because we have been talking about the ice rink at the fairgrounds for almost a year and it's been very public."

For him, the issue boils down to the fact that SCCC's rink uses no taxpayer dollars while the one at the Field of Dreams in Ponderay does. The facility in Ponderay would be outdoors, with weather potentially impacting operation. In comparison, the facility at the fairgrounds would be enclosed and climate controlled, opening the door for after-school activities, hockey tournaments and other events.

Other than leasing the land where the ice rink would be built, McDonald said the county is not supporting the facility.

"The burden is on SCCC to be able to fundraise to make this happen," he said.

What the ice rink will do is provide much-needed after-school programs for local youth, McDonald said. Fight Crime: Invest in Kids — a national group comprised of more than 5,000 law enforcement officials and prosecutors — notes such programs reduce drug and alcohol use, lowers crime and improves academic performance.

"I would think the sheriff would support something like this," McDonald said.

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Dan McDonald

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Wheeler