ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JERRY ENGLER
Marion County probably needs an upgrade or replacement of its jail, and there are demands that local governments do something to help create the economic opportunities for more jobs and services.
So, perhaps it should come as no surprise that the Marion County Commission was attracted to the idea of building a community correction center that would take prisoners from other counties for pay.
Marion County residents will get the chance to speak out on the idea at a 7 p.m. public hearing next Monday, March 6, in the third floor courtroom of the County Courthouse.
After weeks of deliberation with consultants and an educational trip to Colorado on community corrections, the commis- sioners are ready for public input.
At least one commissioner is finding himself caught between two viewpoints on the subject.
Commissioner Bob Hein also is a car salesman in Hillsboro.
“I really want to see what the people have to say at this hearing,” he said.
He said the corrections center would have to be financed by a bond supported by a sales tax, probably a 1 percent county-wide sales tax. Hein said the sales tax would be especially hard on “big-ticket” businesses, those with products that cost more, such as car dealerships, because customers would be driven to buy in nearby cities like El Dorado and Wichita.
Randy Hagen, an owner with the Ford-Mercury dealership in Hillsboro, said such an added tax “would be a huge disaster for Hillsboro and the whole county.
” It would put us at a big disadvantage with dealerships only 20-some miles away at Newton,” Hagen said. “It would put our total sales tax at 2 percent above theirs, 8.3 percent compared to 6.3 percent.
“On a minimal $20,000 car that would amount to a $400 disadvantage. I will predict that of the three auto dealerships in Hillsboro, it would put one of them out of business.”
Hagen said three-quarters of the car buyers come to Hillsboro from out of county in an attempt to save money. The tax would erase any advantage for them.
Marion County Treasurer Jeannine Bateman said earlier this year that the steady increases in sales taxes coming back to Marion County mostly result from automobiles being purchased by county residents out-of-county.
Hagen said that fact shows that dealers have a difficult time just keeping county residents here to shop.
“I can’t believe the commissioners even want to do that in a bad general economy,” Hagen said. “You can’t raise taxes to generate economic activity. If you want more activity, you lower taxes so people have more money to work with, and other people will want to come here.”
Hagen said that was the first rule of “Reaganomics” that worked.
He added that he and his company hadn’t been as forthright in objecting to building a swimming park for Hillsboro with tax money “because it least it came back to directly benefit people here. Our people use it. But this corrections facility mainly is a service to benefit others away from the community.
“If the county wants to build a corrections facility, let the counties it will benefit pay for it. Let our commissioners go get a loan for it that will be paid for from the people that stay there. Don’t do it with taxes.”
Proponents for the corrections center sometimes point to the success with such a facility in neighboring Chase County.
A spokeswoman for the Chase County Treasurer’s Office said in recent months the county is receiving an average $37 daily on 70 prisoners in monthly checks from other counties. She said she frequently sees checks for $55,000 and more monthly from Johnson Count alone.
Marion County jailer Gary Klose has contacted other counties upon several occasions to check potential demand for the commissioners. He said he has been told by high-demand counties like Sedgwick County, that even if they add their own facilities, they project enough future prisoners also to fill a Marion County Center. The urban counties already “farm out” inmates to counties such as Chase and Rice.
Hein acknowledged the contacts from other counties, but cautioned there also is no guarantees.
“If we could keep it full like they have in other places, we’d be OK,” he said.
He is aware of a similar question coming before voters in Reno County to see which way the vote will go there. Hein noted that a Reno County community center bond likely will have a more difficult time passing with a school bond on the same ticket.
He said he doubts that voters would favor any mill levy increase for a facility.
The entire issue leaves Hein puzzling over what Marion County eventually will do because it now has an “antiquated” jail that is deteriorating-despite upkeep efforts-with inadequate staffing and an average jail population that continues to increase with new crimes such as methamphetamine abuse.
There also would be advantages in relocating the judicial and county attorney offices to a new facility, leaving their current offices available for expanding county needs.
Sheriff Lee Becker and his deputies frequently have reported transports of excess prisoners to other counties where Marion County must sometimes pay rates of $45 a day for their stays.
Becker said he has had jail populations of up to 20 prisoners or more on a weekend when the jail already had difficulty handling 15.
Becker said, in a report of “issues” received from inmates, that over the past two months prisoners have been sleeping on the floor of the jail because of inadequate bed space.
It is difficult to separate women prisoners from men, he added.
The prisoners are supposed to have an hour of exercise daily outside cells and extended time with visitors, but Becker said he is not able to supply either because of inadequate staff and facilities. When prisoners are taken outside for exercise, Becker said there are complaints from the public and the courthouse staff about their presence and intimidation.
Becker said he does not have adequate staff to administer pills nightly to prisoners who need them. Also, poor hygienic conditions exist, he said, with rust in the showers and sewers backing up. The jail staff has had to contend with roof leaks.
County officials have said liability to the county could be high if something happened to a prisoner because of inadequate facilities.
Under plans prepared by BG Consultants Inc. of Manhattan, a Marion County Law Enforcement Center-another name for a correctional facility with space added for dispatch, administration, patrol and the county attorney-a 72-bed facility would have an estimated cost of $8,357,260 for building and site construction.
Reducing the facility’s housing to 48 beds would save $855,260. Adding a courtroom and facilities would cost about $1,175,082.
The correctional facility would add jobs to the county through employment of added officers and jail personnel. Becker and Klose have said throughout deliberations that prisoners from other counties would be lower risk inmates and not the more dangerous violent-crime felons.
BG projections for the project call for construction bids to be made in April 2007, with first occupancy in August 2008.
The County Commission would be in charge of financing, but a project team throughout the planning and construction would consist of the commissioners, the sheriff, the jail administrator, the district judge and the architect.
Hein said in the near future, commissioners will have to do something more about the jail.