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Editorial - Tough times, tough decisions

You've probably heard the complaints directed at local county, school and city leaders lately: What do they think they're doing spending so much money on all these projects? Do they think taxpayers are made of money? Don't they know how bad times...

You've probably heard the complaints directed at local county, school and city leaders lately: What do they think they're doing spending so much money on all these projects? Do they think taxpayers are made of money? Don't they know how bad times are right now?

Just looking at the projects, it's an easy bandwagon to jump on. A lot of new buildings are finished, under construction or in the hopper right now - a jail, a public works building, a new elementary school, a park department building and now a proposed joint law enforcement center (LEC) for the police and sheriff departments.

It all adds up to a staggering amount of money. The jail project alone cost about $13 million. Then, to make way for the jail site, public works had to be replaced - a $6.8 million expense; the city's park building had to be moved to a new location - a projected $1.4 million cost; and the preliminary cost figures for the proposed joint LEC, which would be built near the jail, totals just under $12 million.

All those costs add up to more than $33 million. And that doesn't take into account demolition costs and studies associated with the projects.

Looking back at the whole picture, that $50 million rough estimate for a new criminal justice facility that caused such a stir four years ago wasn't such a bad deal after all. It included everything, remember - a jail on a green site with a law enforcement center and a courts facility; $5 million in "soft costs" or interior finishings; design contingencies and more. And those costs, remember, were from four years ago. If the full county board had proceeded with that plan then, a lot of the costs that are surfacing today would have been avoided.

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But hindsight is always 20-20 vision and coulda-shoulda scenarios don't help taxpayers now. Neither does leaping to the conclusion that local leaders are careless spendthrifts. They're not.

They are in a tough spot right now. Their building needs - or more accurately, the public's building needs - are very real. It's not as if local leaders are gleefully rubbing their hands together, wondering how much they can spend next.

The county needs a new jail. The state was going to shut down the current one because it was so far out of compliance. The cost of transporting criminals to other locations would have been a perpetual, significant expense that would eventually dwarf the cost of building a new facility. Although building the jail on 3rd Avenue West may have not been the perfect solution, it was one that drew a consensus of support.

The hard truth is that a new LEC is also needed. The facility being shared in the old Central school building has long outlived the short-term fix it was intended to be. Evidence isn't being stored in secured areas, as it should be. There isn't enough room for offices, interrogation, private interviews with the public, storage and other needs.

What should they do to address those pressing space needs? Wait and hope they go away? Unfortunately, the cost, as it did with the jail project, will only increase. Spend more money on another Band-Aid fix? That would only bite deeper into taxpayers' wallets later. Instead, both the city and county need to work together to keep down costs as much as possible and move ahead with a plan that's the most prudent, long-term solution.

The new elementary school is an entirely separate issue. The school board didn't vote in that project. Residents did - back in September 2007, supporting a $24.5 million referendum by a near two-to-one margin. So far, anyway, the project is under budget and ahead of schedule.

Locally elected leaders have an extremely difficult job, trying to balance the long-term needs of public facilities with the legitimate concerns of overburdened taxpayers. Instead of assuming that local leaders are out-of-control spenders, residents would be better served considering the tough spot they're in and realizing that the best decisions aren't necessarily the easiest ones to make.

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The following is an opinion column written by an Echo Press editorial staff member. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the Echo Press.
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