You paid for it: Why does our new county jail sit empty?

You paid for it: Why does our new county jail sit empty?

CREATED Jul 1, 2011

Las Vegas, NV (KTNV) -- In an effort to make Las Vegas a better place to live, Action News will be exposing government waste in our valley and holding public officials accountable.

A new county jail has been finished for 15 months now. Even though we are paying millions of dollars in rent, the jail sits empty and there are no plans to open it anytime soon.

Under the roar of jet engines out by Nellis Air Force Base sits a pristine new county building. Pristine, because it's never been used.

Action News was granted exclusive access inside the facility with Deputy Sheriff Dixon, Metro's Deputy Chief who oversees corrections.

"We have the showers here, the toilets, and all the beds. No individual cells. It's made so that the officer standing up in his podium, one officer, can watch and maintain care and control of the entire pod."

The low-level offender facility was given the green light by Clark County Commissioners back in 2007 to ease overcrowding at the Clark County Detention Center. It would house non-violent criminals like car thieves, burglars, and prostitutes.

A private firm, The Molasky Group, agreed to front the nearly $200 million to build the new jail. And the county agreed to lease it back for about $12 million per year, or $1 million per month.

The problem now is that the county can't afford the estimated $16 million per year to staff and operate the facility. 

"But the fact remains that we are the tenant and we're obligated on the lease," says County Commissioner Steve Sisolak.

It's a lease that runs for 20 years. Although Commissioner Sisolak wasn't in office when the deal was made, he stands by his predecessors.

Blake McCoy: Do you think the commission at the time made a bad deal?

"Well, no. I think the commission at the time made a deal based on what the forecasts were and what their revenues were at that specific time. The revenues kind of fell off the edge of a cliff."

The gleaming new facility has been finished for 15 months now. All the while, the county has been paying rent to the tune of $1 million per month for it to sit empty. Throughout the course of our reporting, no one has been able to tell us when this jail will open.

Blake McCoy: So where do we go from here? Is there anything we can do?

"Well, I don't know where we go from here. Where we immediately go from here is we're going to pay $1 million a month while we can't open the facility."

But is there still a need for it?

During construction, Sheriff Doug Gillespie told Action News not opening the facility would jeopardize public safety.

"I don't think somebody that commits a burglary should be just released on their own recognizance. I don't think somebody who steals a car should be either."

Blake McCoy: Sheriff Gillespie told us about two years ago that this was a matter of public safety, that opening this facility was a matter of public safety and it was needed to keep the population of Las Vegas safe. Has that changed?

"No. Crime still continues," says Deputy Sheriff Dixon. "There has been a downturn in crime, a slight downturn in certain types of crime. But overall, opening this would be the wise thing to do."

In fact, Action News learned that the Clark County Detention Center is still overcrowded; with only 3,000 beds, it's now averaging 3,300 inmates. The overflow of inmates sleep on cots.

"I could probably move up to another 100 and be where I would consider safe," says Deputy Sheriff Dixon.

The new jail will get some use over the next few years, temporarily housing inmates as the Clark County Detention Center is renovated.

But when it will permanently open remains unknown.

"Times have just changed, and tax payers on are on the hook for it," says Commissioner Sisolak.

To the tune of $15 million so far, and rising.

As the county prepares to cut more from its budget and will likely lay off more workers, this jail remains a huge hole in the annual budget, a situation no one is happy about.