County delays action on jail

Clark County commissioners have delayed action on construction of a new jail for low-level offenders, but not before expressing support for the project and the need to build it quickly.

County staff requested 30 days to evaluate a lease agreement with one of the valley’s most powerful developers.

Under the deal, the Molasky Group would build the approximately $128 million jail and lease it back to the county for $11.3 million a year. After 10 years, the county would have the option to buy the 1,038-bed facility at fair market value. Lease payments would not count against the sales price, however, so taxpayers essentially could end up paying for the building twice.

During Tuesday’s commission meeting, much of the discussion focused on how quickly the jail could be built, not how much it might cost.

Commissioner Chip Maxfield said the facility has been in the works for three years and is desperately needed to relieve crowding — and stave off a potential lawsuit or federal sanction — at the Clark County Detention Center, where hundreds of inmates are forced to sleep on cots.

The downtown detention center has an official capacity of 2,859 inmates but regularly houses 3,700 or more. Assistant County Manager Elizabeth Quillin said the county spends about $9 million a year to rent additional jail space from Lincoln County and jails operated by Las Vegas, Henderson and North Las Vegas.

The low-level offender facility would take some of the strain off the county’s detention and house arrest programs by providing beds for inmates jailed for misdemeanors and some nonviolent felony offenses.

Through the 30-year lease agreement with the Molasky Group, officials hope to get the jail built more quickly, perhaps in as little as 18 months.

Before that happens, County Manager Virginia Valentine said staff needs more time to determine whether the proposed annual payments to the Molasky Group are fair.

Company President Richard Worthington urged the county to complete its review as quickly as possible. He said the project’s overall cost has gone up $2 million in the 30 days since his company negotiated a lease rate with the county.

“Time is of the essence, or our costs are going to go up” further, Worthington said.

The Molasky Group closed escrow Monday on 37 vacant acres on the northeast corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Sloan Lane.

The property is next to a commercial fuel storage facility and across Las Vegas Boulevard from Nellis Air Force Base. Quillin on Tuesday hinted that the site could someday house a regional jail facility for up to 4,000 inmates.

Commissioners delayed action on the lease for two weeks.

That was too long for Commissioner Tom Collins. He voted against any delay, citing potential cost escalations and the possibility that the Molasky Group would grow tired of waiting and withdraw its offer.

“We need to move on this thing,” Collins said. “Pretty soon the old maid don’t get no more suitors.”

Only Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani expressed serious concerns about what the county could end up paying and what it might get for its money.

She said the last time she remembers the commission voting on the project, it was much smaller and involved the use of prefabricated modular buildings instead of a more traditional brick-and-mortar structure. Giunchigliani said none of the changes made to the plans since then have come before the commission.

“Now we’re just debating whether we’re going to fund something we never discussed,” Giunchigliani said.

Collins offered the opposite complaint. If anything, he said, the county has spent too much time talking about a new jail and too little time seeing it through.

“We need to do things in a more timely manner so we don’t get into these crisis situations,” he said. “Let’s spend more time doing things and less time studying things.”

Collins went on to note one other potential benefit of a lease with a private developer: It should shield the county from the sorts of delays and cost overruns that plagued its Regional Justice Center project, which finally opened downtown in November 2005, more than three years late and millions of dollars over-budget.

Commissioner Rory Reid abstained from Tuesday’s vote, because his law firm performs work for the Molasky Group.

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