Will Clark County really spend $1 million on artwork at a new jail?

As you might’ve heard, estimates for the cost of a new Clark County jail came in hot. 

Last year, the county assembled a blue-ribbon commission tasked with evaluating the county’s options for replacing or substantially upgrading its crowded and outdated jail. This spring, the commission determined that the new jail should have between 850-880 beds, up from its current 590, based on “policy levers,” or variables that could affect the jail’s future population.

More recently, the commission has turned to how to pay for it all. Earlier this month, a consulting firm provided estimates that put capital costs alone for a new jail between $381.5 million and $413 million, depending on which of two options the county moves forward with. 

Those figures caught the attention of Adrian Cortes, who is running in a special election for Clark County Council as a Democrat. On June 10, Cortes posted a video to Facebook taking issue with the high cost of the new jail. He also was also unimpressed with what he characterized as “a whopping $1.1 million for artwork in the new facility.”

“Really?” Cortes asked incredulously. 

If the county moves forward with replacing its jail, it’ll almost certainly involve taking out a bond that’ll be paid back by taxpayers over decades. Will Clark County taxpayers also be on the hook for artwork as well?

In an interview with The Columbian, Cortes pointed to the estimate provided to the commission that includes a line budgeting $1 million to $1.1 million (depending on the option the county pursues) for “Project Artwork.” 

Craig Pridemore, the CEO of Columbia River Mental Health Services who chairs the committee, said that nothing is definitive and everything is on the table. 

Pridemore said that there is a requirement in state law for public works projects that requires one half of 1 percent of its budget to be spent on art. He said that it’s possible that the consultant just used the law as a guideline for their report. 

“If that comes out in the final proposal, he can raise it then,” said Pridemore of Cortes’ remarks. “But raising it during the process is just political blustering.” 

Glenda Carino, communications manager for the Washington State Arts Commission, said that the public art requirement only applies to state projects. Local jurisdictions can adopt a similar requirement if they want, she said. 

In Clark County, there is no public art requirement according to county spokeswoman Leigh Radford. 

But Cortes said that even if there isn’t a requirement that a million dollars be spent on public art at the new jail, his overarching point stands: The proposed project is too big and too expensive. He said that when bonding costs are taken into account the new jail could cost a half a billion dollars, which would raise property taxes considerably for decades. 

Cortes said that the county should instead look into renovating the jail at a smaller cost. He also said that the county should emphasize its therapeutic and specialty courts over incarceration. These courts steer offenders with substance abuse or mental health issues toward treatment instead of locking them up. 

Cortes referenced a report showing the effectiveness of these courts and said the county should rely on them over building a new jail. 

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