The Ely Times

Friday, April 12 several governmental representatives from White Pine County attended a Senate Finance Committee in Carson City.  The hearing was for SB149.  

The hearing gave Judge Steve Dobrescu, Judge Gary Fairman, White Pine County Finance Director Elizabeth Frances and District Attorney Mike Wheable a chance to provide a presentation to the Senate Finance Committee. 

Pete Goicoechea, Nevada State Senator for District 19, spoke first explaining to the committee that the bill was asking for $10 million for the construction of the White Pine County Justice Center. 

Goicoechea explained that in 1989, some of the worst of the worst came to the  Ely State Prison. A court room was built at the prison but unfortunately it was challenged very early on whether an inmate would receive a fair trial. That’s when it was required that trials for inmates were moved to the White Pine County courthouse.

Unfortunately, if they have a violent or dangerous inmate it requires half an army to secure the facility. 

There is one elevator, the witness judge and defendant could all be riding in at the same time.  

Goicoechea recalled a hearing a few days prior where an Ely State Prison guard was testifying. “The prison guard had just gotten out of the hospital, and he had been worked over. I guess my concern is if we can’t even protect the guards in our system, how can we bring them to that 1900 courthouse, and keep the judges, public and witnesses safe?” Goicoechea said.  

Dobrescu, testified before the committee. He said, “The location of the courthouse, is 50 feet from the library, and 500 feet from the middle school, located across the street.”

On the inside of the court room the witness stand where an inmate sits is three feet from the juror box, and a foot and a half from the judge’s chair.  

Dobrescu said, “Why are we asking the state? When the prison came, we wanted it, and it’s a great economic anchor, and we love it. There’s no doubt about that but over time that we have seen the type of inmates that are there and the danger that is brought into the community when an inmate is brought in, it’s been overwhelming.”

The presentation provided statistics that showed that 90 percent of the inmates housed at the Ely State Prison are from Clark and Washoe counties.

“We feel there is an obligation and concern that the state should be looking at,” Dobrescu said.

In 2000, the courts in White Pine had 11 murder prosecutions, six of those came from the Ely State Prison, 19 attempted murders cases filed since 2000 out of those, 11 were from Ely State Prison. 

Dobrescu explainered pictures in the presentation. “We don’t have a holding cell, it’s in a staff break room. They change their clothes out. The men’s restroom, it’s also used by the judges, the public and the staff.” 

Regardless, the county is moving forward and they are two thirds of the way there.  Plans have been whittled down as much as possible. 

Frances explained to the committee about  an increase in the electrical franchise fee, that coupled with closing the administrative building and moving the staff from that building into the courthouse. 

Nevada Senator Chris Brooks questioned Frances with construction budget related items. “The $20 million budget, is for a 100 percent of the courthouse. Who generated the budget? The construction budget?”  

Frances said, “Core Construction.”

Brooks said, “Is that a guaranteed maxiumum price that they are proposing to do this through? What’s the contracting methodology that the county plans on using?”

Frances explained that the construction manager at risk guaranteed the maximum prices is what would be used. 

Brooks said, “We have seen in this committe wildly and inaccurate estimates on construction based upon when the request was made and when the project would be finished due to errors and inflation. When would you anticipate if you were to get this appropriate, when the project would be complete?”

Frances said it would be sometime between December and September 2021.  

Senator James Settelmeyer had questions for Frances as well. “You had mentioned earlier that you guys dedicated a quarter cent tax, I was just curious because the county is not really large, how much of that amounts to in a year. Just as a point,  it’s going to take quite a while and that’s why this bill is so necessary to help out and assist.” 

Frances explained that the quarter cent sales tax generates about a 10 year average of $628,000. 

Settelmeyer said, “Just out of curiousty the population of the county is 9,682 with the date I look at,  and of that the prisoners are counted. So how many prisoners are in McGill?”

Frances said, “Approximately 1,000.”  

“So 1 in 10 of the people in the county are prisoners.” Settelmeyer said.

Fairman testified next.  “I’ve been in Ely for over 40 years. It seems like most my life has been spent at the courthouse. Why it’s appropriate? Because of the impact of the Ely state prison.  This is not a precedent setting measure senators. ESP houses the most violent offenders in Nevada.  These offenders commit crimes inside the prison, they are not the normal criminals we see in our courthouse.

“Ely has no gangs, about one murder every five years, fewer armed robberies, what’s important though, is that for all defendants, even the most violent repeat offenders to be entitled the same fair and impartial justice system as you and I.”

When an Ely State Prison inmate travels to the courthouse, security issues are present with escape possibilities and the assistance of others to aid in an escape. 

“Many inmates are serving long sentences with the incentive with an intent to escape, many are associated with violent gangs on the outside as well as inside,” Fairman said.  “It’s just simply a different culture. If an escape occurred, many citizens, including children are exposed to immediate harm.”

Dobrescu described two cases of inmates that have been housed at Ely State Prison. He said, “In 1991, in Las Vegas, a man from West Virginia with prior felonies befriended a man and shot him three times in the face. Then he took a wrought iron rod and mutilated his face, and in an attempt to conceal the dead person, he cut his teeth out, cut his hands off, put them in a paper bag and threw them in the desert. That’s the kind of person at ESP, and that’ the kind of person that’s been in my courtroom.” 

In closing, Goicochea noted to the committee that this was the fourth time this bill has been brought to the senate in some shape or form.  

“It has been an issue, I think we have been lucky to this point, and some sitting on this commitee know there is some issues with Ely, as far as staffing, it’s inevitable, not if it happens, it’s when it happens. Its imperative that we give some help to White Pine.” Goicoechea said.