Given Douglas County commissioners’ vote last week to shelve a proposed ballot issue rerouting some of the county’s Justice Center sales tax to fund highway expansion, it was hard not to find irony in a news report out of Pueblo a few days later. The Pueblo Chieftain’s headline said it all: “Pueblo may pay to send shoplifters to Douglas County.”
No, the miscreants wouldn’t simply be released on the streets of Castle Rock or Highlands Ranch; that’s the good news. They would be housed in DougCo’s expansive and well-funded county jail — which evidently has room to spare. And that might comes as a surprise to county residents right after Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock persuaded two of three county commissioners not to give voters a chance to tap into the Justice Center’s hefty funding stream, lest it undermine public safety.
As reported here last week, Commissioners David Weaver and Roger Partridge nixed a plan by freshman fellow Commissioner Lora Thomas to go to the ballot with her proposal to reconfigure a long-standing county sales tax that has poured funding into wide-ranging law-enforcement upgrades, including the jail. A little over half of the revenue from the 0.43 percent Douglas County Justice Center Sales and Use Tax, approved by voters in 1995, would have helped upgrade the chronically congested stretch of I-25 south of Castle Rock.
According to a fact sheet Thomas had prepared, the Justice Center tax has raised over $360 million since 1996. It has financed courtrooms, jail cells, a dispatch center, a state-of-the art coroner’s facility, the Highlands Ranch Substation, a jail infirmary, an employee parking garage, a driving track, a regional crime lab, an evidence warehouse, radios, radio towers, body cameras and cameras throughout the facility. The last two courtrooms added to the Justice Center complex remain unused. All while I-25 motorists are stuck in gridlock.
In other words, the dedicated sales tax has been good to law enforcement in the rapidly growing county, courtesy of a thriving retail sector that pumps lots of revenue into the Justice Center funding stream. So much so that there apparently aren’t enough warm bodies to fill the jail cells, and the county is open to renting out space.
A perfect match for Pueblo, which doesn’t have enough room for its inmates — particularly shoplifters, who have been getting released after only a few days due to overcrowding. Authorities there say the perps go right back to shoplifting.
The Chieftain’s Zach Hillstrom reports that Pueblo City Manager Sam Azad recently told Pueblo City Council members he had asked around to see if other counties had room in their jails:
“We tried every county in Southeast Colorado, and it hasn’t panned out,” Azad said.
“But recently, Douglas County responded to us and said they have excess capacity if we pay them on a daily basis for the inmates that we want to house there more than 10 days.
“(Douglas County) would be willing to take those inmates and we won’t have to transport them to the county jail here in Pueblo.”
Having the availability to jail offenders in Douglas County will allow municipal judges to sentence larceny offenders to jail time more often, Azad said, as well as to hand out longer sentences to repeat offenders when appropriate.
Now, Azad is drafting an agreement with Douglas County to house the convicts under a pilot program. He told the council the Pueblo County Sheriff’s Office even might be able to transport the prisoners, so the effort wouldn’t drain manpower from the city’s police.
Of course, it won’t be a short trip. Even Pueblo County’s finest still will have to thread the needle during rush hour on Douglas County’s overcrowded span of I-25 — before dropping off their prisoners at the county’s underused jail.