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JUSTICE-CENTER WORK MAY START SOON

SHARE JUSTICE-CENTER WORK MAY START SOON

Here in the Wasatch County high country ringed by "Utah's Alps," summer is in full swing as crowds of vacationers cluster routinely now around a valley that any other time of year is anything but bustling.

The Dairy Keen on Main Street sells ice cream at a frantic pace, skiers dodge each other on the choppy surface of Deer Creek Reservoir, golfers wait patiently to tee off on scenic fairways and kids line up to board the circular Midway Shortline Railroad.Even the county jail is full.

But that's not necessarily a seasonal attraction. It's been a problem for years now - jailers routinely keeping an average of a dozen people a day behind bars in a facility that has just eight beds.

"We've had as many as 27 in here," said Sheriff Mike Spanos.

It's kept kind of quiet, though, partly to ward of criticism, partly because a remedy is in the works.

"Don't broadcast that too loud. We don't want some ACLU lawyer up here raising h---," said one county official, chuckling only half in jest.

Two years ago, voters with an eye to the future passed by a 2-1 margin a $5.5 million bond issue to build a new Wasatch County justice center. The construction bid has been awarded Brown-Foutz Co. of Salt Lake City. The contract will probably be approved July 11, and construction starts, presumably, right after that. Planning for tomorrow, designers have drawn 52 cells into the new jail.

Lift-off for the project has been slow largely because of indecision on where to put it.

"We should be opening the jail now instead of breaking ground," said Sheriff Spanos.

Some residents made it clear they didn't want the jail-and-courts complex downtown, so a 13-member search committee was appointed to pick a place.

They liked a county-owned, 20-acre parcel of ground along Midway Lane on the west end of town, but the three-man commission quietly, and without comment, vetoed the idea, opting instead to condemn 30 acres at the southeast corner of U.S. 40 and U.S. 189, also at the edge of town.

"I don't know why they did it," Spanos said.

"Beats me," added Wasatch County Attorney Dan Matthews.

The commission has taken a thrashing or two over the decision from the local press, which is to say the Wasatch Wave, a weekly newspaper that recently panned the three-man body for its "lack of leadership."

County insiders say the commission's refusal to go along with the site-selection committee might just be a case of small-town political muscle in flex.

"They have every right to do it," said Spanos, who thought the Midway Lane locale was better - and cheaper - but adds that he can live with the other site, too.

Taxpayers will shell out at least a quarter-million dollars for the new site, which was chosen at the expense of Timberline Inc., a Provo company that was going to put a log-home subdivision on the spot until it was condemned for the jail.

"They stole our property under the rights of condemnation," complained Larry Brown, one of the Timberline principals who had a bold and probably workable vision of putting 76 houses fronted by a small shopping center on the land.

Brown notes that within the past year, Heber Valley real estate has turned into a gold mine. The 30 acres he optioned for $220,000 a year ago today is worth closer to $2 million, he says.

And he laments that he signed off on a $20,000 settlement, swearing to see if he can't back out of it and take the county to the cleaners as others have done in condemnation fights.

It's water off the backs of the commissioners, though. For two members - Pete Coleman and Moroni Besndorfer - there won't be any political fallout; neither is running for re-election.

And anyway, few residents of the 10,000-resident county seem very stirred up about it.

Coleman says the 20-acre Midway Lane parcel is better suited to a recreational complex, fitted with lighted ballparks catering to local softball leagues, the after-hours entertainment of choice in Heber City.

He brushes off criticism on the subject as par for the political course.

"Oh," said Coleman, a 15-year commission veteran, "we can handle that."