- Written by John Plestina
Roosevelt County Sheriff’s Office detention officer Brian Nelson points to a metal wall inside the “bullpen,” a section of the jail with metal passageways that surround the cells. It is part of the World War I era Navy shipboard brig inside the jail. (Photo by John Plestina)
The end is in sight for the antiquated Roosevelt County Jail, according to the sheriff’s office, which is asking voters for the funding to replace it.
If voters don’t approve a public safety bonding measure on the primary election ballot Tuesday, June 3, the county could be forced to close the more than four-decade-old lockup and the cost to the taxpayers could be substantially higher than a mill levy increase that would be necessary to fund construction and operational costs.
If the bonding measure passes, the costs to taxpayers for construction-related costs would be $46.06 per year for residential properties valued at $100,000 and $11.18 annually for operational expenses. The jail staff would increase from eight to 14.
The bonding measure asks voters to authorize the commissioners to issue and sell $11.86 million in general obligation bonds to be repaid within 20 years with an estimated annual fixed interest rate of 10 percent.
The Montana Code allows Roosevelt County to borrow a maximum of a little more than $17 million. Roosevelt County is currently debt free.
“It’s something I feel we have to do. There’s no question about it,” Roosevelt County Commissioner Gary Macdonald said after the commissioners adopted a resolution Thursday, Feb. 27, that included language limiting the amount of the indebtedness to a maximum of 2.5 percent of the total assessed value of taxable property in the county.
The proposal is to remodel the existing sheriff’s office and jail facility behind the Roosevelt County Courthouse with an addition, a less expensive option than building a completely new facility at a different site because it would reduce construction expenses and eliminate site acquisition costs. It would also retain the jail in close proximity to courtrooms, minimizing transportation costs.
The addition would provide a 60-bed jail that would be compliant with all standards.
The bonding includes the costs of designing, building, equipping and furnishing the jail and office space for the sheriff’s office that would be included. The proposed facility would include an “eyes-on” master control center, booking area, medical isolation area and several Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant cells. An E-911 communications center would be included in the facility.
The larger jail could generate revenue by accepting inmates from other counties and would be large enough to handle a much higher volume of local offenders as increases in crime are projected.
The current 17-bed jail has a rated jail capacity, per state standards, of only 11 beds. The jail averaged 15 inmates per day in 2012, with occasional peaks as high as 20. Nineteen were housed Friday, May 23. Fifteen were male and four female. Three were Native Americans. Most natives are sent to the Fort Peck Tribes jail in Poplar unless they committed a crime off the reservation.
Detention Officer Brian Nelson said most of the people lodged in the jail Friday, May 23 had previously served in prison.
As many as three people occupied some cells that have a capacity of two.
“We’re always at capacity. We get one. We lose one,” Undersheriff John Summers said and added that if the county doesn’t build a new jail, and crime continues to rise, an increasing number of inmates could be sent to other counties at local expense.
“The only way we get rid of some of them is when they get sentenced,” Summers said.
There have been increasing occurrences of county deputies, Wolf Point city officers and Montana Highway Patrol troopers releasing offenders with citations because the jail has been full.
The Valley County Jail in Glasgow is at capacity most days because Valley County has accepted inmates from Custer County. That county had to close its jail because it did not comply with standards.
Options remaining for Roosevelt County inmates, if they have to be sent to other counties include jails as far away as Great Falls, Summers said.
The logic for Roosevelt County building a new jail is compelling: It doesn’t have much choice. That’s because the current overcrowded 17-bed lockup is in disrepair after 42 years and is said by local officials to be an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit waiting to happen.
Some renovations were done at the Roosevelt County Jail last year so that the jail could remain open.
County officials have expressed concerns that the jail cannot meet current standards for Montana jails, cannot comply with requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act, has inadequate space for drug counseling and inmates who are on the sex offender registry.
The county has cited that the current jail was not designed for higher security risks jail officers now face, an increasing presence of out-of-state offenders, with at times as many as 90 percent awaiting trial on felony charges. Concerns have been raised that it has become difficult to separate non-violent offenders from violent felons. The county reports a more aggressive jail population than a
few years ago.
Metal cells and walls in corridors between the aging jail’s cellblocks resemble passageways of a surplus ship scrapped long ago.
Jail Administrator Melvin Clark said the jail was built in 1972 with the metal cells that were moved from the former jail, built during the 1940s, and located in the current courthouse parking lot.
The 109-year-old metal cells were originally a World War I era shipboard Navy brig.
The need for a larger facility with enhanced security is increasing every year.
A Montana Board of Crime Control study for Roosevelt, Daniels, Richland and Sheridan counties, labeled by MBCC as the primary Bakken Oilfield region of Montana, shows an increase in criminal offenses between 2008 and 2012 of 218 percent and an increase in arrests for the same period of 173 percent. Roosevelt County arrests rose 187 percent during the same period, the per capita crime rate for the four-year period went from 25 percent below the state average to 56 percent above and reported the highest percentage of increased crime in the region with 48.5 percent.
The MBCC study also projects a population increase for Roosevelt County of between 11 and 40 percent during the next 15 years.
A high bar for passage of the bonding measure concerns county officials. One fear is a possible low voter turnout with this year not being a presidential election year. If between 35 and 40 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, which is a possible scenario, a 60 percent super majority would be required for passage. If 40 percent or more vote, only 51-percent approval would be adequate. If the voter turnout is below 35 percent, the measure automatically fails, regardless how high the percentage of affirmative votes might be.
“The downfall is going to be right here (Wolf Point). To get the voters out. Wolf Point is the biggest voting district,” Macdonald said.
He said if voters do not approve the measure, the county might have to close the jail, forcing the Sheriff’s Office to farm out all inmates to other counties at costs of $50 or more per person per bed plus transportation costs. Currently, with crowded conditions, some inmates are transported to Glasgow (if a bed is available) or Sidney.
If voters approve the bonding measure, the county hopes to begin the design phase in July, with construction starting during late spring or early summer of 2015. If those timelines are met, the addition could be opened by late 2016 with remodeling completed by early 2017.
The county commissioners have held informational public meetings in Wolf Point and Poplar and scheduled two more informational public meetings in Bainville and Culbertson Wednesday, May 28, after press time.
- Written by Culbertson Searchlight
The Culbertson High School Class of 2014 is (front row, from left to right) Grace Cooper, Sam Fell, salutatorian Courtney Sorteberg, (second row) Alex Walcker, Paxton LaQua, valedictorian Renee Oelkers, Alexus Olson, Erica Nickoloff, Kendra Bets His Medicine, Christian Damm, Taylor Bridges, (third row) Austin Lambert, Charmayne Necklace, Taylor Primeau, Ella Crowder, Elizabeth Hendrickson, (back row) Colton Zahn, Shayne Cochran and David Manning.
- Written by Culbertson Searchlight
Culbertson eighth-grade graduates are (back row, left to right) Jacob Martin, Aaliyah Moon, Kaiyan Northington, Dakota Shelton, (front row) Abby Ator, Lance Bengochea, Brennon Bets His Medicine, Mackenzie Blair, Christian Boyd, Brady Craig, Sam Walking Hawk, Allison Golie and Cassandra Lucas.
- Written by Nancy Mahan
The Culbertson School Board hired several classified staff Tuesday, May 20.
Two teachers were assigned new positions. Chelsey Ligon will switch from fifth grade to third grade and Brad Adams will be the new fifth grade teacher.
Lanette Bidegaray’s request for a one-year leave of absence was approved.
New staffing was hired for the following positions; secretary, counselor and math teacher. Rhonda Larsen will be the new secretary.Lori Roys is the new math teacher, and Courtney Hagadone will be the new guidance counselor.
The school is still searching for a new business education teacher.
Teacher housing and a bus barn were highlights of the meeting again. The board suggested holding the two two-bedroom apartments they have leased through the summer so they won’t loose the potential housing. No clear plan has come to light for construction of the proposed bus barn.
The next board meeting will be held Tuesday, June 17.
- Written by Culbertson Searchlight
Questionnaires were sent to incumbent Freedom Crawford and challengers Jason Frederick, Mike Mathews and Don Tomsic. All of the candidates responded to the questionnaires.
Why did you declare yourself a candidate for sheriff?
Crawford: Eight years ago the voters of Roosevelt County entrusted me to lead the fight against crime as their next sheriff/coroner. The voters re-affirmed their choice four years ago when they re-elected me to a second term. I have been asked again by my constituents to seek a third consecutive term because they trust my leadership skills and understand my passion to keep our streets safe. They also see the real changes made in the department after I first took over the sheriff’s office as I brought professionalism and dedication, along with teamwork between law enforcement and the public to fight crime. When re-elected for a third term, I promise to continue the good fight for our county citizens.
Frederick: I entered the race to become Sheriff because I felt that your Sheriff’s Office needed to have a change in direction. I believe the current administration was unavailable or unapproachable to most of the citizenry that we were sworn to serve.
In my eyes, this is a strong contradiction to how the Sheriff’s Office was designed to function.
I want to make positive changes with the assistance and guidance of the public.
Also past events have severely crippled this offices integrity and as we are all aware attitude reflects leadership. I feel obligated to do what I can to restore integrity and honor within the office.
Matthews: I decided to run for office after reading about the loss of the drug grant. The grant was a very important tool in the fight against drugs. Also, the incident in Lewistown that brought shame and disrespect to the Sheriff’s Office and the residents of Roosevelt County.
Tomsic: I’m tired of all the unlawful activity in our community and I want to make a change.
What do you hope to accomplish as sheriff during the next four years?
Crawford: For the past two years, I have been working tirelessly with the commissioners and Jail Administrator Melvin Clark on planning a jail expansion for our county. I have spent endless nights on developing plans to fund, staff and operate this modern facility. A few months ago I brought these plans to the commissioners to vote on a public bond issue on June 3. The jail’s bed space will increase to a 60-bed facility and the cost of this project will be approximately $11.8 million dollars. This will cost the local tax payer $46.08 per year if your house is valued at $100,000 and/or $92.16 per year if your house is valued at $200,000. If the voters pass this bond measure I will continue to lead the fight against crime and also work on the jail expansion project; as we will also be remodeling of our current facility into a fully functional law enforcement center as part of the project as well.
Frederick: I want to develop a better working relationship and promote open communication with the citizens of Roosevelt County.
I want to develop a detective position that will better enable the Sheriff’s Office to respond and investigate the unprecedented amount of call volume that we are currently facing. This will ensure that you get a quality report, and quality investigation with nothing falling through the cracks.
I want to proactively engage the citizens of our county where their communities change nearly daily due to the influx of all the oil activity.
I want your office to work better with all local agencies to maximize your tax dollars. If we work cooperatively we can increase the amount of service without affecting the budget.
Matthews: My primary goal is to bring unity and pride back into the office and improve the morale in order to become an efficient and professional force. Develop a local task force that involves all agencies, city, county, tribal, BIA and other federal agencies. The problem is getting bigger, and needs to be dealt with now.
Tomsic: I want to crack down on criminal activity and make our communities safe again for families and elders.
What do you see as being the major issues facing the Sheriff’s Office?
Crawford: Prior to the Bakken Oilfield coming to the eastern part of our county, our jail was housing approximately 34 prisoners. Most of these prisoners were locals sitting in jail on a variety of crimes, mainly misdemeanors and alcohol related. However, due to the oilfield, our jail has been inundated with a huge amount of felony crimes by individuals coming from all over the country i.e. California, Texas, Florida. The majority of these prisoners has a long history of criminal activity and have been in and out of jail all over the country. The size of our jail is problematic and has made it difficult to segregate violent prisoners from non-violent prisoners, to keep our jailers safe from career criminals and most important to have an adequate building to house criminals since most of the time the jail is at full capacity. Jailers have been assaulted as a result of our outdated facility and a prisoner escaped a few years ago that we later captured in Denver, Colo. As a county, we need this modern facility to keep our citizens safe.
Frederick: There are a lot of major issues facing the county right now. We are experiencing alarming growth in this county that is affecting everyone from Wolf Point to Bainville. There are new businesses, new faces, and more traffic. Some of the changes are positive but not all of them. I think the department needs to proactively get in front of the new challenges and make necessary changes before it’s too late. It’s been said many times that an ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure.
I would like to alter the patrol schedule to maximize coverage where it is needed. I want to reestablish a LOCAL drug task force. I want to reinstitute the Reserve Deputy Program which would create an avenue for local people to participate and serve.
Matthews: I see the influx of people moving into the area because of the oil boom as being the main problem. The rise in the crime rate and the large increase in drug crimes starting up on the east end of the county. The lack of a serious effort to stop this. We have always had our own continuing problems in crimes and drugs, but the oil boom shows that we are falling behind and need to start dealing with the problem.
Tomsic: Lack of enforcement and courts failing to prosecute fully as mandated by the law, overcrowding of jail facilities, nepotism.
What areas do you feel are the most in need of improvement? How would you address those areas?
Crawford: Housing improvement for all our county employees on the east end of the county and re-establishing the County Deputy Reserve Program are two areas I will address when re-elected for a third term. I have been a first responder my entire professional career and the number one rule as a first responder, is to keep yourself safe, so you can keep helping people in emergencies. Being that our county is so vast and we have many communities to provide public safety to, we need adequate personnel in these key locations to respond for help. Logistically, if we do not have deputies living in our remote towns we cannot effectively respond to protect and serve. (For example, a deputy gets paid good wages but they do not get paid Bakken Oilfield wages and cannot afford $2000 per month rent for houses in the eastern part of our county.) This is an issue for our county road department and other county employees providing essential services to our citizens as well. I will continue to address this issue by working to develop housing for our workers. I will also re-establish the Reserve Deputy Program to provide more volunteer personnel on the streets for our citizen’s safety and to provide back up for our patrol deputies. Several deputies have been assaulted as a result of these new criminals coming to our area.
Frederick: My biggest concern right now is the department’s lack of cooperation with the public, the commissioners, different law enforcement agencies and other first responders. I feel the department is currently in an “us vs. them” role. The current mentality seems to be “it’s my way or the highway”.
With this attitude it becomes increasingly difficult to work towards the common goal of keeping people safe and making better communities.
No single person or agency has all the answers. As an office that is charged with such a critical role of safeguarding everything we hold dear I believe we should value public input and participation and actively seek better communication, and understanding with all other first responders within the county. How can an office address your needs unless they are willing to talk with you about what you need?
Matthews: Patrols and drug units. Patrols can be improved by restarting the Reserve Deputy Program. The rural areas have been neglected, not patrolled as much as they should be. Reserve deputies could be cover that area, reducing thefts and property crimes. The drug problem is a very expensive battle. Start with skilled investigators, build up an intel base and follow up with proven methods in drug investigations, team up with organizations that can help fund the investigations like the DEA, FBI and the BIA. Search for and apply for grants.
Tomsic: Crack down harder on drug enforcement, more proactive patrolling to cut down on the vandalism and break-ins, cut down on vagrancy on the city streets and the panhandlers.
If any programs need to be cut in the future due to a budget shortfall, what would you cut first, second and third?
Crawford: As a fellow taxpayer myself, I take the responsibility of your tax dollar seriously. I do not anticipate any budget shortfall in the near future because, for the most part, the value of our mills have historically increased since I have become sheriff and I believe they have only been stagnant only once or twice. Two years ago, I brought to the taxpayers a vote to continue and even increase the Public Safety Mill Levy. The taxpayers agreed that my office was providing them with proper public safety and they voted to increase the mill levy from 4¼ mills to 7 mills. These additional mill levy funds have helped tremendously with hiring an additional deputy sheriff to help patrol and also provided some valued equipment. Last month I also applied for $300,000 in additional grant funds from the U.S. Border Patrol and U.S. Department of Justice for “Operation Stone Garden.” These “Operation Stone Garden” grant funds will be utilized to provide overtime funds for patrol deputies and equipment, such as two additional patrol units. Since being your sheriff my office has also brought in almost $1 million in additional grant moneys to ease the burden off local taxpayers.
Frederick: It’s not a matter of programs that need to be cut that would become an issue, it’s just certain line items that would need to be reevaluated in a budget shortfall. In my three years of serving as your undersheriff, I had the ability to work with the daily budget in the sheriff’s office. In that time I noticed that there tends to be a little bit of wiggle room in these three line items small equipment (uniforms, duty belt supplies), office supplies, and machinery and equipment. This would be the first place I would look to make cuts if forced to. I would do everything I could to not sacrifice jobs or service coverage.
Matthews: I don’t know of any programs are funded by the sheriff’s office, but the primary goal is to protect and serve. Any other funded programs would have to be cut back until the budget can support them.
Tomsic: Any unnecessary and wasteful spending, set priorities in regards to safety of officers and the public’s needs first.
Do you feel staffing levels are adequate? Too high? Too low?
Crawford: I have four patrol deputy positions in the Wolf Point area, four patrol deputy positions in the Poplar area and one resident deputy living in each of the towns of Culbertson, Bainville, Froid and McCabe. I also have eight jailers, 10 full time dispatchers, and three office support staff. I will be requesting three additional full-time employees this year when I submit my budget to the commissioners next month. I plan on utilizing these additional full-time employees as follows; one position as a patrol deputy for the Brockton/Fort Kipp/Riverside area, one position as a dispatcher so there can be three dispatchers on per shift, and one position as an additional jailer so there can be two jailers on per shift to keep the jailers safe from assaults. Sometimes, there is only one jailer on per shift and this is not safe. Since becoming sheriff, I have already increased our jail staff by three additional jailers but there are still some shifts where only one jailer is working. I believe that keeping our jailers safe will in turn keep the public safe from escape.
Frederick: This is not an easy question to answer. A lot of it depends on where you live within the county and even that changes routinely as new problems and issues arise. In the east end of the county where the oil activity seems to be centered we are constantly playing a game of catch-up and a lot of deputies are being forced to commute to the east end. This is causing frustration in Bainville, Froid, McCabe, Fort Kipp, Brockton and Culbertson. Response times in these communities are too long. On the flip side of that coin a trip to Wolf Point for copies of police reports, or to complete an application for a concealed weapons permit is inconvenient for the citizens on the east end.
I believe we need to increase staffing levels on the east end by, establishing a sheriff’s office supervisor position in Culbertson. This deputy would work out of the Culbertson county office during normal office hours to assist with getting paper work (police/accident reports, etc.) filed and filled out for the citizens. This supervisor would also be able to respond to calls which would decrease lengthy response times.
I would also like to increase patrol deputies in the east end of the county. This would create a proactive patrol approach.
This is why in the other parts of the county (Poplar, Wolf Point, and northern farm country) it becomes critical to work with other agencies. If we work with their scheduling, we can not only have the same coverage you have now, but I believe we can increase the coverage and services without adding additional manpower in this area at this time.
Matthews: Too low. The area is growing quickly. More coverage is needed.
Tomsic: Too low.
Do you have any relatives employed by the Sheriff’s Office? If so, how many and who?
Crawford: Though I consider the sheriff’s office employees my second family as we have gone through a lot of tragedies and highly stressful situations over the past 15 years, the answer to your question is no; I do not have any blood relatives or in-laws working at the sheriff’s office.
Frederick: I have no blood relatives working at the sheriff’s office. My grandmother-in-law works in the civil office (paperwork aspect).