ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JERRY ENGLER
The Marion County Board of Commissioners unveiled their plan for building a new county justice center to mixed reviews at a public hearing Tuesday evening, Jan. 16, in the Marion County Courthouse.
The proposed two-story, 63,137-square-foot facility was projected to cost up to $15 million and would require increases in the county’s sales tax and property tax rates to cover the cost of construction.
The detention portion of the facility would contain 72 beds for prisoners, with the expectation that the majority would be used to host prisoners from other counties at a fee of $30 to $48 a day per prisoner.
The facility also would include a new district courtroom with related offices for personnel as well as space for the sheriff’s department, county attorney and dispatch services.
Opposing viewpoints seemed to solidify among the 50 or so people who listened to the presentation by the commissioners and the architect from BG Consultants Inc.
The tensions were between those who fear businesses may be hurt beyond repair by the tax load, and those who want to build a law enforcement and justice center to replace what they see as an antiquated county jail with liability problems.
The county commissioners saw the meeting as a step in putting the question on the April election ballot.
Commission Chair Randy Dallke said commissioners wished they had gotten everything together to have the question placed on the November ballot last fall.
The difference in viewpoints may have been illustrated as soon as the meeting was beginning when Sheriff Lee Becker noted the jail was inspected Tuesday by the state fire marshal’s office for the first time since the 1990s.
Many county officials around him shook their heads, knowingly fearing that such inspections and resulting liabilities for prisoner’s care may force them to rebuild or remodel the old jail in a worst case accompanied by litigation.
Opposition from Hillsboro
A surge of opposition was heard from Hillsboro business people when the meeting was opened for questions.
Randy Hagen and Terry Hagen, owners of Hillsboro Ford-Mercury, were the most vocal.
“We already lost one million-dollar-a-year business this year in Hillsboro-now you want to see more go?” Randy Hagen said in reference to the recent closing of the local McDonald’s franchise.
Terry Hagen said all of the car dealerships in Hillsboro are dependent on out-of-town trade that won’t come to Marion County if there is no price advantage.
Hillsboro is too small to support such businesses on its own, the Hagens said, and even if they appreciate the support of local customers coming to service cars there, it does not generate enough revenue for the dealership to stay in business.
Randy Hagen said the smallest of sales tax increases could make the critical difference. Addressing Commissioner Bob Hein, a car salesman, he said, “You’ve seen them walk away over $20, haven’t you, Bob?”
The brothers scoffed at a meeting handout that listed sales tax increases up to 1 percent on a $17,500 car, saying they are more likely to sell a $25,000 to $30,000 car.
The increases on the $17,500 car were $87.50 for a 0.5 percent increase, $131.25 for a 0.75 percent increase and $175 for a 1 percent increase.
Terry Hagen said a likely scenario is for Hillsboro to become a town with no car dealerships left if the project discussed is funded by sales tax bond.
Christy Wulf, director of the Hillsboro Chamber, said local businesses already are at the top limit of sales tax. She said an increase would further drive residents to shop out of town, leaving local businesses with only the older customers who can’t leave town easily.
Harry Bennett of Marion suggested a property-tax mill levy or combination of mill levy with sales tax might be the more “honest,” reliable way to go.
But most of the spectators groaned at the idea of a levy that could hit a 12-mill increase.
Participants asked if existing county funds couldn’t be used, and whether pay-to-stay prisoners from other counties couldn’t eventually pay for most of the facility.
David Arteberry, bonds representative, said income might pay off bonds early, but to sell bonds they must be backed by a quantifiable tax, such as sales tax.
County Clerk Carol Maggard said the county’s general fund may have large amounts in it at times, but it also has the fiduciary responsibility of forwarding taxes collected to entities such as school districts and cities.
Margo Yates, Marion Chamber of Commerce representative, said she hated to see the county put a “Band-aid fix” on the jail problem because facing a lawsuit or state directive could cost money that might have been put into the facility.
Some citizens of Marion said the proposal catches them “crossways.” They also have to pay taxes, but they could benefit by having a correctional and judicial center in their industrial park.
Earlier that day, the Marion City Council agreed to offer the county five acres in its unoccupied industrial park at no charge if the corrections center moves forward.
Hillsboro citizens derided the idea that the facility would gain 15 jobs for the community, saying far more jobs than that could be lost through the loss of existing businesses.
Beyond project costs
Bennett and others raised moral questions surrounding the project. Bennett said that someone who is in jail has already “made a train wreck of his life.”
“Do we want to profit from that?” he asked.
Roger Hofer of Hillsboro made a similar point, saying he didn’t think it was appropriate to subsidize other people’s problems with county tax money.
In addition, Hofer said no one had presented sufficient information to convince him the plan to help pay for the facility by importing pay-to-stay prisoners would actually work.
Bob Maxwell, county resident who represents Marion County on the Eighth Judicial District committee, said Marion County has been waiting “with a minimal building” for something disastrous to happen in recent years.
He said correction to facilities has to be made, “and I would hate to see us settle for a minimal building.”
County officials said Chase County has made a definite statement on how well its pay-for-stay jail has worked by completing a $25 million expansion of the facility.
Judge Michael Powers said he could send many more offenders to jail-that he can’t now because of the limited room-if he had space for work-release prisoners.
He said a good example would be a person who has been convicted for not paying child support. The person has a job and needs to catch up on support and pay bills, so he is allowed to go to work.
Off work, the person is confined to his home, probably with an ankle bracelet communicating his whereabouts, Powers said.
He believes it would send a stronger message to that person if in his off-hours he was in jail.
Powers answered a criticism from Tony Epp of Goessel, who said he frequently sees court facilities not in use. Powers said they are in use often, and that nearly anyone in the courthouse can testify to the crowding and resulting lack of security when they are.