Campaign for new Arapahoe County jail draws cash, opposition attracts volunteers

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AURORA | Nearly $90,000 has poured into campaigns both for and against building a new jail in Arapahoe County in recent months, including several thousand dollars from construction and design firms that have helped build other jails in the past, according to campaign finance data released earlier this week.

The issue committee advocating for passage of a county-wide property tax increase that would fund the construction and maintenance of a new detention center in Centennial has netted $57,500 since July, according to reports filed with the Secretary of State’s Office Oct. 15.

Several of the firms that have contributed to proponents of Arapahoe County measure 1A are western and midwestern construction companies that have erected jails across the region. J.E. Dunn Construction, a Kansas City, Missouri firm that is currently building a 1,920-bed correctional facility in Kansas, pitched $7,500 to the campaign on Oct. 16. Centennial-based Haselden Construction, which erected the jails in both Jefferson and Broomfield Counties, contributed $7,000 last month. St. Louis, Missouri-based investment bank Stifel Nicolaus, which specializes in local government finance and has helped underwrite jails in South Carolina, gave $10,000 Sept. 30, according to Secretary of State filings.

The Aurora Economic Development Council and the Aurora Chamber of Commerce also each gave $5,000 to the campaign committee, which is formally deemed “SAFER Arapahoe County.”

Opponents of the measure, which seeks to raise Arapahoe County property taxes an average of $5.66 a month to fund a new $464 million jail beside the Denver Broncos training facility, have criticized the proponents’ benefactors.

“It comes as little surprise that the campaign to build a bigger jail in Arapahoe County is receiving most of its funding from companies that are in the business of building and servicing jails,” Justin Cooper, deputy director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, said in a statement. “Voters should know that the ads they see in favor of raising taxes for a new jail are largely being paid for (by) businesses that may have an interest in pocketing those taxpayer dollars. It’s telling that 1A is supported by business interests and companies that build jails, but opposed by nonprofit organizations that are concerned by the county’s overuse of its jail and failure to fund community-based mental health and addiction services.”

Sean Walsh, spokesman for SAFER Arapahoe County, expressed gratitude toward the committee’s donors.

“We are grateful and humbled to have the financial support of many of Colorado’s employers who care deeply about the inhumane conditions at the Arapahoe County Detention Center, Walsh said in a statement. “This is how public policy gets done in Colorado – the public and private sector routinely cooperate to help fix community problems.”

For years, the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office has fulminated against the Centennial jail’s aging infrastructure, cramped layout and lack of inmate resources. Originally built to house 386 inmates in 1986, the facility currently houses about 1,100 people. A pair of new pods added in the early 2000s allow the building to house 1486 inmates, though federal mandates require the jail to leave 20 percent of the capacity unfilled at any given time.

Cooper’s group as well as several other advocacy groups, including ACLU of Colorado and the Colorado People’s Alliance, have called for systemic criminal justice reform instead of constructing a new jail.

“Arapahoe (County) could safely and significantly reduce its jail population by adopting some of the best practices that have been successfully employed by other Colorado counties,” Cooper said in a statement earlier this month. “ … 1A would be a step in the wrong direction. If Arapahoe County builds a bigger jail, it will have less incentive to pursue smart criminal justice reforms that safely reduce the jail population, save taxpayer dollars, and improve public safety.”

Cooper’s Denver-based organization is the primary engine behind the opposition to the ballot question. A committee known as “Coalition for Smarter Public Safety Spending” formed to oppose the measure Sept. 18, according to Secretary of State filings.

The group has garnered $29,870 in non-monetary contributions, such as staff time and communications consultation, so far. The Criminal Justice Reform Coalition has provided nearly all of said services, per campaign finance filings. The Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, a Denver-based non-profit organization that advocates for social justice causes, granted the group $400 in staff time earlier this month.

The group has garnered no cash donations.

Walsh lambasted Cooper’s descriptions of the committee’s donors.

“We continue to be mystified as to why the ACLU does not want to provide a safe, compassionate facility for Arapahoe County,” Walsh said in a statement. “Their cynical characterization of our supporters is typical of the type of misinformation campaign they are running to try to confuse Arapahoe voters.”

One more campaign finance report is due four days before the Nov. 5 general election.