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Judge rules jail lease contract unconstitutional

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COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho (AP) — A judge has ruled that an agreement between Kootenai County and Rocky Mountain Corrections is unconstitutional, stalling plans for the county to lease a private jail to relieve prisoner overcrowding.

Under the lease agreement, Rocky Mountain Corrections would build a jail that would let the county house more than 900 inmates. The agreement needed a clause that would allow the county to terminate the lease at the end of the yearly budgeting period.

The Idaho Constitution prohibits counties from entering into debt for longer than a year without a public vote. Kootenai County voters had rejected jail bonds three times previously.

District Judge John Stegner ruled Friday that the proposed agreement did not meet constitutional muster, the Coeur d'Alene Press reported (http://bit.ly/1n9i8Ru ).

"The question is whether they (the county) are obligated to pay if they don't want to," Stegner said. "The way I read it is that they are required to pay whether they want to or not."

Stephanie Bonney, a bond council attorney hired by Rocky Mountain Corrections, told the judge the language used in the so-called non-appropriation clause of the lease agreement was commonly used in contracts made throughout the state.

Stegner told her he did not see it as a true non-appropriation agreement.

Jai Nelson, the only county commissioner opposed to the proposed lease, filed a legal challenge to the agreement earlier this week. Nelson's attorney, John Magnuson, did not make a statement in court.

Afterward, he said Nelson should be commended for bringing the challenge.

"Without her, who knows what would have happened," he said.

Nelson said she proposed a feasibility study to look at all the options, then to let residents determine how to proceed.

"Once all those options are explored, the appropriate ones should come out and we can present those to the citizens and let them decide," Nelson said.

The 327-bed Kootenai County jail has faced overcrowding for years, and officials have previously said the county pays about $800,000 annually to house offenders at other jails.

Kootenai County Sheriff Ben Wolfinger said county commissioners must decide how to proceed after the judge's decision.

"This ruling didn't make the problem go away. We still have more inmates than beds at the jail," Wolfinger said.

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Information from: Coeur d'Alene Press, http://www.cdapress.com

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