Arapahoe County voters to consider property tax hike to finance $464 million jail


AURORA | Arapahoe County voters this fall will decide whether to fund a new county jail with  a property tax increase, the board of county commissioners decided Aug. 27. 

Following months of discussions, presentations and tours, the five Arapahoe County commissioners unanimously decided to move forward with a ballot question that will ask voters to underwrite a roughly $464 million jail.

Dubbed county ballot issue 1A, the proposed question will ask the county’s some 437,000 registered voters to raise the county property tax mill levy by about 3.4 mills. That equates to an increase of approximately $5.66 per month, or about $68 a year, on an averaged price home — about $380,000 — in the county.

The measure would net an estimated $46 million per year beginning in 2020, according to county calculations. A portion of the proposed tax would sunset in 2052, dropping to 2.3 mills.

Even with a mill-levy increase, Arapahoe County would still boast the lowest property tax totals among all seven metro area counties, officials said. 

If approved, the new funds will go toward replacing the current Arapahoe County Detention Center beside the Denver Broncos training facility in Centennial. 

For years, officials have lamented the 33-year-old jail’s poor amenities, inmate resources and size. 

Originally built to house 360 inmates, the jail has since been updated to now accommodate more than 1,400 people, though the average daily population typically hovers around 1,100, according to county documents. But to reach those capacities, many prisoners are triple bunked in diminutive cells, making the task of keeping gang rivals, mentally unstable inmates and other special populations separate from one another even more difficult. 

Vince Line, bureau chief with the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office, said the jail is currently not honoring a state statute that requires authorities to detain convicted criminals separately from inmates who have only been suspected of crimes and are awaiting trial. 

“Obviously it’s an important issue to try to keep those who have been convicted of a crime from those who have been charged and accused but not convicted,” Line told community members earlier this summer. “We cannot do that in our facility. We just simply don’t have the space.”

An exemption clause in the law prevents the jail from technically violating state statute, Line said. 

Of the 1,137 inmates in the facility Tuesday morning, 837 were pre-trial detainees, meaning they had not been convicted of any crime, according to Arapahoe County Sheriff Tyler Brown.

The new jail would be able to house 1,612 people, Brown said. And while that wouldn’t be a substantial increase from the current maximum capacity of 1,458 inmates, the new facility would allow deputies to more easily and lawfully separate said high-risk populations.

“It’s an exciting day for all of us, but there’s one last little piece, and that’s that we need to get the voters to buy into this,” Brown said. “It’s truly a community safety issue.”

County data show that assaults against inmates and staff in the facility have also increased in recent years, which has sown safety concerns among county officials.

During the public meeting Tuesday, officials readily acknowledged the general distaste among voters to provide resources for people charged with or convicted of crimes. 

“It’ll be a hard haul at the ballot this fall, but a much needed one for the growth in the fastest growing county here in the state,” said Kevin Hougen, president and CEO of the Aurora Chamber of Commerce.

The measure specifically calls for additional mental health programs at the facility, alternative sentencing programs, and other programs aimed at lowering recidivism.

The ballot question also stipulates that a citizen advisory committee appointed by the county commissioners will regularly monitor the ongoing expenses incurred at a potential new facility. 

If approved by voters, improvements would likely begin next year and be financed over the course of 30 years, according to county documents. 

The county clerk will issue the earliest ballots beginning Sept. 21, according to the Secretary of State. 

Election Day is Nov. 5.