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Finally, a smaller new jail proposed for Chaffee County

Brief by Central Staff

Local Politics – November 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

Finally, a smaller new jail proposed for Chaffee County

Last year, Chaffee County voters turned down a chance to add a use tax on building materials and car sales, with the proceeds going to a new 100-bed jail. Now, there’s a plan for a 50-bed jail.

Earlier this year, the county commissioners sponsored a survey, complete with some dubious projections, to find out how voters might be persuaded to support a 100-bed jail. Last summer, they were floating the concept of “sales tax equalization” — raise the county sales tax to 4%, to match the 2% for municipalities plus the 2% for the county that is charged in towns, and use the extra revenue to build a bigger jail.

That notion died quickly when neither Buena Vista nor Salida would endorse it, officially on the grounds that they couldn’t responsibly give the county control of a local revenue source, and unofficially, at least in Salida, because the mayor and several council members just plain didn’t want a bigger jail.

None of this provoked any county announcement of plans for a smaller jail. But then in October, the commissioners announced they would start looking at a 50-bed jail.

Did they see the light?

Perhaps, but it could have been some raw politics, too. Incumbent Sheriff Ron Bergmann, a Republican who has supported a bigger jail, is up for re-election. His Democratic challenger, Mike Bowers of the Salida Police Department, has campaigned hard and one of his major issues is that, while the county needs a bigger jail, it doesn’t need 100 beds and the new jail should be built on the courthouse grounds, not two miles away.

Now observe that two of the three commissioners are Republicans, and their 50-bed announcement would get Republican Bergmann off the hook of having supported a 100-bed jail.

Alas, that tantalizing explanation probably isn’t valid. Bergmann is about as non-partisan as any elected official we know; indeed, he attends most public Democratic county functions. And Bowers, when we talked to him, didn’t think party politics were behind the commissioners’ announcement.

“But if my campaign for a smaller jail had anything to do with the commissioners changing their minds about this, then praise the Lord,” Bowers said.