BILLINGS — It may not be on the ballot this election, but voters could soon be asked to help fund a big expansion of the Yellowstone County Detention Facility, Commissioner John Ostlund said Tuesday.
It's a project that Ostlund predicts could cost taxpayers up to $100 million. He couldn't say an exact amount until a committee of 10 people, that Ostlund and County Attorney Scott Twito appointed earlier in the year to look at the entire justice system, finish their assessment of where improvements can be made. Ostlund predicts a final evaluation to be complete by December.
“We’re talking about a large expansion. I don’t know, early estimates in my book are $80-to-100 million and we have to staff that, so it’s going to be expensive," Ostlund said on Tuesday after a county commissioners board meeting. "We’re going to have to ask voters for their help, and citizens recognize the need for public safety and I think they’ll take a good look at it once we finally have compiled all the statistics.”
Ostlund said it is too early to know when the bond will appear before voters. After the committee of 10, known as the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, recommends the number and type of additional jail cells, the commissioners will draft a request for proposal to an engineering service, select a design engineer, and gather an estimate of construction costs. They will then move to a public hearing to decide how much, and when, to ask for the money from voters.
“We will be expanding, but we need to know what size, what type,” Ostlund said.
The announcement comes after Billings experienced a string of crimes over the past week, including three different shootings that resulted in four deaths.
“We shouldn’t have a crime streak like this in our city,” Ostlund said.
With the jail already facing overcrowding and understaffing after an expansion in 2018, Ostlund knows something needs to be done.
“We expanded to 436 inmates, and we run about 600,” he said. “(The jail is) about 15 employees down right now.”
Solutions to gang violence and crime are complex, and according to Ostlund, a local jail expansion is just one part of the solution. He said other larger problems, including southern border control, preventing drugs from entering Montana to a lack of mental-health evaluations clogging the jails, are contributing to overcrowding.
“If we don’t close the border, we’re not going to be able to build our way out of this problem and the flow of drugs across the southern border is the problem," he said. “If you have an inmate that needs a mental health evaluation, they’ll sit in our jail for a year. Sometimes two years waiting for a mental health evaluation before they can be adjudicated. Now that blocks the system up it contributes to the overcrowding that we got.”
At a news conference last week, Billings police and city leaders acknowledged that gang activity has played a major role in the recent violence. Mayor Bill Cole said the city supports the idea of a new jail, but said the county commissioners turned down the city's offer to help fund a study.
“The county commissioners declined our offer saying, understandably, like the chief has said, this is part of a much larger problem,” Cole said on Tuesday, Nov. 2.
But Ostlund disputed that claim, stating the commissioners wanted a more comprehensive review of the area's judicial system.
“We didn’t deny the jail assessment, the assessment the city had after a review wasn’t what we wanted and wasn’t what we needed," Ostlund said. "So, to say that the commissioners are not on board is absurd and I take exception to it.”