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Construction crews have finally begun work on the $18 million Utah County Security Center. And while the jail has raised residential property taxes, officials say those costs will be cheaper than a lawsuit in the long run.

The current jail was built to house 135 inmates but averages 190. Threats of civil rights lawsuits because of overcrowding prompted county officials to plan the new jail."It would cost more to fight a lawsuit through the courts than build a new facility," Commissioner Malcolm Beck said during groundbreaking ceremonies Thursday morning. "This jail will be a great asset to Utah County and a great asset to both Spanish Fork and the public."

Beck said the groundbreaking ceremony was part of a red-letter day for county officials, who have been waiting nearly six years just to get to this point.

Despite the jail being located in Spanish Fork, Mayor Marie Huff said she expected the extra law-enforcement presence to make the city even safer.

Utah County Sheriff Dave Bateman said that while the jail construction has actually brought relief to him and other officials, other problems associated with the new security center are already popping up - such as staffing the facility.

"There's going to be a myriad of new problems to face," Bateman said. "But we've got an excellent staff that is prepared for new challenges."

Construction work is expected to last until spring 1996, with the jail's opening date scheduled for June 1, 1996.

The new security center will contain 334 cells, including single-occupancy and dormitory cells, doubling the current jail's capacity. Additional expansion, which has already been planned for, could allow the center to house 830 inmates.

Last June, voters approved $22 million in general obligation bonds to help build the jail, resulting in a $24 yearly property tax increase. Construction bills alone on the security center will cost the county nearly $18 million, even though $2 million was shaved from Alder Construction's original bid by architects, the contractor and Clyde Naylor, Utah County engineer.

The groundbreaking ceremony came after work had actually begun on the jail. Earlier this week, crews from Alder Construction Co. of Murray began pouring footings for the 158,000-square-foot security center on 30 acres near the Spanish Fork-Springville Airport and the new Spanish Fork Utah Army National Guard Armory. Already, utility work - on hookups to Spanish Fork's power, water and sewer systems - has been completed, and Spanish Fork Main Street has been extended for access to the center.

While construction takes place, officials have opened a 36-bed work-release unity to ease crowding at the current jail, which is located in Provo. The current sites will be turned over to the state, as part of a land swap, and the county Health Department will utilize some nearby adjacent facilities for its new alcohol treatment program.