My first assignment at the Free Press was attending a jail meeting in Hillsboro. Since then, it’s been something I have followed for more than 16 months.
After two rounds of talks with constituents in the three communities, the question in November 2009 was whether to build a new 72-bed, $9 million jail using a one-cent sales tax increase to pay for it. The voters gave that proposal a resounding “no” vote.
After the voters spoke, the commissioners said they were going to back to square one and thought it wise to select a group of citizens that might have better ideas then what they put together.
According to the state fire marshal, the previous sheriff, the new sheriff, along with the county commissioners and the majority of the jail committee assigned to study the issue, the current jail has gone well past its life expectancy.
In April 2010 the advisory group, made up of 12 members, with three alternates, was assembled to study the issue and come up with a plan. The first order of business was to visit the current facility. Most of the newly appointed committee members were shocked at what they saw and decided to get to work on recommendations they could bring back to the commissioners.
The group reviewed funding sources, size of the facility, whether 911 dispatch and emergency management should be included in the mix, or if it was feasible to transport prisoners to another location. Other discussions included the pros and cons of renovating the old jail, but it would cost close to $5 million, which would include moving the 911 dispatch and emergency management department out of the building.
Several months later, the group ruled out transporting prisoners based on cost and asked three architects to propose a facility that would be sufficient for Marion County. At one point the advisory team also looked at paying for the facility based on $10 per year fees on every property owner in the county for up to 10 years.
Because of constitutional issues, the state attorney general’s office said collecting $10 fees could not be done.
One thing the advisory group asked for, but was unable to secure, was a line-item budget for the county jail, i.e., payroll, food costs for prisoners and other incidentals to include heating, cooling, electrical, water, fuel, overtime and more.
The committee was given some expenses, but was told it is too difficult to set up a budget each year because it was hard to predict how many prisoners would be incarcerated and the fees that would go with that.
Even though I can understand that logic to some extent, I still believe the jail should have a budget. It seems to me that a budget could be established based on a five-year average of expenses.
I know other counties in the state require the sheriff to submit a detailed budget each year. breaking down expenses to their county, so why can’t our county do that?
Many people have asked me that question, and my answer is that our commissioners receive bills to pay and they are paid. In other words, the jail expenses are not questioned or deducted from any sort of budget. In my mind, it creates an accountability problem.
When I worked at another newspaper and handled all facets of the operation, one thing my corporate mentor told me was that newspaper rack sales needed a closer look based on the projected revenue and what was actually being collected. It seems that each month the proposed budged was set at about $800 with actual revenue collected near that amount.
But in the months before I became involved in that job, the amount collected was between $350 and $400 a month. At first I just thought newspaper rack sales were way down, but the amount stayed consistently lower than projections each month.
Turned out there was a problem, but it might not have been found without the projections and actuals based on a budget.
I know it’s a far cry from setting up a budget for the jail, but it also seemed like if there were never a newspaper-rack budget, at first glance it might too seem like an impossible task because some months maybe people weren’t interested in reading the newspaper.
Surprisingly, that wasn’t the case and the budget helped me find a problem based on averages over the years. That’s not to say that everything isn’t on the up and up even when departments are without a line-item budget. But the point is, a budget can be a good way to compare costs from year-to-year. If nothing else, I hope it’s something the commissioners will look at.
Having said all that, and after attending advisory meetings and town hall discussions for more than a year, I am thoroughly convinced we need a facility. I don’t think transporting prisoners would be a good option and I think the commissioners have struggled hard to do the right thing by listening to the committee’s recommendations in reducing the cost of the facility, the size, and choice of an architect.
A lot of people agree we need a new jail facility, but there was a difference of opinion on how big it was, where it would be located, and the one-cent sales tax increase.
The commissioners have solved two of those concerns, and attempted to find a compromise in the advisory group’s recommendation to use a $10 fee per property owner. The idea was that if anyone in the county gets a property tax bill, they would be charged $10 each month. But that turned out to be a non-starter, as mentioned earlier.
Is a half-cent sales tax a good idea? Is property tax? Are there other options that should be considered? By the way, doing nothing is not an option.
My hope is that when the commissioners begin their three town hall meetings about the issue, that the public will be there to listen and ask questions. It’s one of the best ways to make an informed decision April 5 on the jail question.
For those who have already toured the jail, I don’t think a repeat tour is necessary, From my experience, once was enough.
Let’s not be scoffers about the jail issue. For those who haven’t been involved, please consider taking the time to hear what the commissioners, sheriff and others have to say about what is needed. Then whatever happens April 5, happens.