Public hearing on justice center fills courtroom

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JERRY ENGLER
Marion County Commission Chairman Dan Holub said the public hearing Monday night on what is called a justice center project now rather than a community corrections center, was just the first of several hearings before final decisions are made.

But the crowd of more than 60 persons gathered in the district courtroom was vocal enough to conclude that some opinions may be shared by a considerable portion of them.

First, the members of the public seemed to agree with county commissioners, law officers, judiciary and consultants that something will have to be done to replace a jail facility built early in the century and upgraded in the 1980s that is inadequate now.

They also seem to agree that building a 72-bed facility complete with everything from sheriff’s offices to dispatch to courtroom facilities at an estimated $11 million price tag for just building construction might be the best county option.

The problem comes in how it all is to be paid for. Persons connected with Hillsboro’s car dealerships were especially vocal in describing how a sales tax to support a bond issue could ruin their businesses.

David Arteberry, bond consultant, said for the amount of money required, Marion County would have to borrow it through a bond issuance. The bonds would require taxes as security to pay them, he explained, and the state allows the county to raise either sales tax or property tax, or a combination of the two, for the purpose.

He estimated this would require a 1 percent sales tax that would last 10 to 15 years before the bonds were paid off, or a property tax from an 8-mill increase.

Revenues expected from housing prisoners that came from other counties could not be used by the county to guarantee bonds, he said, but they could be used to pay bonds off more quickly.

For instance, Arteberry said that Atchison County had been able to use a combination of tax money and prisoner receipts to pay off bonds in five years.

The tax money couldn’t be used for any other purpose, and would require public approval in an election, he said.

Holub said if planning could be completed, Marion County citizens could vote on a tax to pay bonds this November. He said commissiones would be studying other ways such as grants to finance a program.

Dan Hall of BG Consultants from Manhattan said that could set a completion time for the justice center for August 2008 at the earliest.

Sheriff Lee Becker outlined many security problems in the current jail including officers, including female dispatchers, forced to tolerate walking within reach of prisoners, inmates kept where they can hear office proceedings and radio dispatch so they can learn everything going on, and inadequate staff to handle prisoners in the current facility. Female prisoners can’t be kept completely away from male observation or commentary, he said.

Hall said everything in the old jail is built in a straight line so that an officer might be able to observe only up to four prisoners at a time. The new pod correction centers are built in a circle like a pie with the officer in the middle enabling him to watch up to 60 prisoners at a time.

Becker said there is no handicapped accessiblity in the current jail, and that even remodeling it would require construction of an elevator.

Estimates of upgrading the current structure to acceptible standards ran at $2 million to $3 million. Comments from the crowd during the questions period indicated a general understanding that county money would be better spent in building a new facility that would help pay for itself not only in keeping other counties’ prisoners but in efficiency too.

One woman said it is only a matter of time before some prisoner grasps the situation to use it to sue the county.

Judge Michael Powers said security issues are of high concern in the court areas with parole officers forced to work with prisoners in individual small rooms. He said he would favor measures to preserve the old courtroom, but it is inadequate for all new technologies.

Powers noted one of the factors that has increased the jail population is the community corrections program which the state chose to retain lesser offendcrs in county jails rather than continue expanding state prisons. He now can sentence such in prisoners in ways such as work release where they go work regular jobs to pay bills and support famillies while spending weekends in jail.

Hall noted that once unexpected crime developments such as methamphetamine drug manufacturing increase jail population too. He projected Marion County’s own jail population level to hit 43 prisoners sometime in the next 20 years.

Becker said methamphetamine makers steal anhydrous ammonia at agricultural locations in the county, and then see burglary operations they could do to expand their crime takes.

Holub said a check Monday afternoon of six other counties that built correction centers showed all are happy they did so.

Jailer Gary Klose and Becker noted that Rice County is averaging receipts on 68 prisoners of 72 capacity at $35 a day for $2,040 per prisoner monthly. Chase County is doing a $2.5 million expansion on its facility.

Hillsboro car dealers Doug Wright and Randy Hagen said a sales tax could ruin the three dealerships in that city.

Former car dealer Albert Reimer said the commissioners should carefully consider whether in a failure to gain the prisoners needed, or in the event of a drop in sales tax, that Marion County has the population and resources anyway to pay a debt of $11 million.

Holub and Hall said the $11 million does not include site acquisition or staffing.

Reimer noted that Marion County once had two car dealers in Marion, two in Peabody, one in Pilsen and one in Durham, and now the three in Hillsboro are the only ones left. He said county residents need to think of the county as a unit, and not dismiss that as Hillsboro’s problem.

Even if a resident must return to his home county to still pay the difference in sales tax, Reimer said the problem is a pschological sales tool.

In answer to questions about whether a corrections center could be built with another county, Becker said neighboring Eighth Judicial District counties could be possiblities, but they probably would want the jails built in their counties.

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