Lively “Divide Hilton” saga reaching final conclusion
It may not quite equate to Teller County’s version of “Phantom of the Opera,” but the jail albatross may soon be lifted from the shoulders of county officials and leaders.
Last week, the county commissioners outlined plans to proceed with efforts to make the final nearly $800,000 payment due on the jail facility in Divide, one year earlier than initially proposed.
With this action, the county will become debt-free and will actually own the jail facility in Divide, nicknamed by some as the “Divide Hilton,” which often haunted Teller in previous years, at least financially and politically. For years, the government financed the facility, constructed in 1995, through the often controversial certificate of participation (COP) lease process.
Even after falling into the county’s ownership, the jail will still operate as a separate jail enterprise, according to Finance Director Vicki Caldwell.
At last week’s regular meeting, Commissioner Erik Stone praised this action. “All debts on behalf of the county will be paid off,” said Stone.
He noted that officials from other counties in Colorado would love to be in this type of debt-free position. County leaders reminded the public and press that the new sheriff office expansion was financed without incurring any debt.
In previous years, the jail often turned into a contentious subject, sparking a huge debate between a former sheriff and the county commissioners. The facility was run by the sheriff’s department, but the commissioners were in charge of the finances. This sometimes generated a few lively power clashes, showcased in the local media.
During the current sheriff administration of Jason Mikesell, a number of outside contracts were pursued that helped fill up the 100-plus-bed facility, including a closer arrangement with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement).
The coronavirus epidemic, though, impacted some of these contracts, according to officials. However, the facility is starting to return to normal operations.
The jail, according to Caldwell, is now running in the black, after a tough year due to the coronavirus epidemic.
Regardless of ups and downs finance-wise, the county will now fully own the jail facility in Divide.
A Colorful History
Teller’s jail pursuits, though, have a lively history.
At one point, the county mulled a huge mega justice center in Woodland Park. But this idea was voted down by the voters in the early 1990s, and the county went jail-less for a short period.
It then pursued a facility in Divide without a vote, through the COP process, which allowed the county to make lease payments to a non-profit entity. Some critics, including Doug Bruce, the author of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, classified this as a sleazy way to avoid voter scrutiny.
However, Teller officials argued at the time that they didn’t have many options, as the old jail in Cripple Creek was forced to get shut down, shortly after gaming began, by federal officials.
The county rented jail beds from El Paso County, but this process got too expensive and didn’t really work out for law officers due the transportation hurdles.
The location of the jail in Divide sparked much debate, as the city of Cripple Creek had offered the county a much more lucrative deal at a much lower price. By putting the jail in Divide, relations soured between Teller and Cripple Creek for a number of years.
Then, there were problems associated with the limited infrastructure in Divide.
And the operations of the jail caused its own slew of problems.
Initially, the jail was run through a private contractor. But during the administration of former Sheriff Frank Fehn, the county took the reins of the facility, following a successful escape and several questionable self-inflicted deaths.
Still, financial pressures continued, as just as the county took over the jail operations, a big boom occurred throughout the state, involving jail construction by other jurisdictions.
The county has made the process work financially mainly through outside contracts, such as with the federal government and outside entities.
The jail payoff is just one big fiscal development. Last week, the county commissioners initially approved Teller’s $38 million proposed budget for 2022. A final decision will occur in early December.
The budget is quite similar to 2021 fiscal blueprint, although more requests are getting funded due to more available revenue and a growing pot of coronavirus relief monies. A budget hearing is scheduled for Oct. 19 in the Centennial Building in Cripple Creek. Copies of the budget are available online by accessing the county government’s website, and using a link to the finance department.