FULL STORY about Marion County jail/sales tax meetings

EDITOR: For space reasons, we were unable to run the entire story on the Marion County jail and sales tax meetings in our March 30 issue. Here is the entire report.

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In addition to many contested races across Marion County, voters will also need to decide on April 5 whether a new $3.5 million, 32-bed jail facility is in their future.

To help residents make an informed decision about the jail question, which will be funded with a half-cent sales tax increase, Marion County Commissioners are holding a series of town hall meetings.

Along with a presentation by Andy Pitts of Kansas City and an architect with Treanor and Associates, the commissioners also opened up the meeting for questions.

The current problems

Pitts said the current jail was built in the 1930s and added on to in the 1980s.

?It currently doesn?t allow for direct supervision of inmates, doesn?t meet code or Americans with Disability Act (guidelines) or life safety requirements,? he said. ?It has outlived its usefulness in the operation of a jail.?

Pitts described the hallways, which are 40 inches wide, and how the inmates can reach through and grab ahold of or throw something at a deputy or jailer.

Because the staff does not have one spot to monitor inmates, they must move around and put themselves in harm?s way, Pitts said.

Safety issues

The current jail lacks fire sprinklers. In the proposed facility, Pitts said if a fire occurs, the inmates and other staff can move easily to a safe place.

?In the current jail, the staff wouldn?t want to open up cell doors without a means of controlling inmates before moving them to a safe environment,? he said.

Other problems include the lack of holding cells when a prisoner is arrested and could be disorderly or intoxicated.

More concerns, Pitts said, include the 911 dispatch area, which is also not secure during severe weather, problems with prisoner classification and lack of bed space, the multi-story facility and taking prisoners up multiple flights of stairs and the building?s infrastructure.

?The plumbing system within the building is the major problem,? he said. ?Every cell has a toilet and inmates like to flush things down toilets.?

The result is that the toilets back up and on the second floor, the water filters down to the first floor and into public areas and the offices, he said.

?There are jail cells not able to be used because of plumbing.?

Another problem with the infrastructure involves the mechanical system, which has outlived its usefulness.

?It costs a lot to maintain and operate,? he said.

The capacity of jail has been limited by beds and the Kansas State Fire Marshal?s office.

Marion County Sheriff Rob Craft, Pitts said, has to move people out to other areas or move people around within the jail to be able accommodate the number of females, males, court orders to separate two people who can?t be physically together.

In classifying inmates, he said, not everybody who is arrested needs to be locked in a cell by themselves and away from everyone else.

?They can be kept in different environments, but a lot of times we don?t know who we are arresting and bringing to the jail,? he said. ?We have people that have substance abuse issues and mental capacity issues that we need to deal with in different ways and we must segregate those people.?

The proposed jail

Pitts said he and others in his firm have worked with the Marion County jail committee, which was appointed by the commissioners to study the options, the sheriff and his staff.

The idea was to come up with a potential layout that would work for the county within the program and cost requirements, he said.

?Some of the objectives we looked at were a safe and secure facility for Marion County,? Pitts said, ?and being able to have direct inmate supervision.?

Direct inmate supervision allows the county to minimize the amount of staff it takes to operate the facility, the ability to classify the inmates, separate people and put them in different housing areas, make the jail expandable, easy to operate and not cost the county a lot of money in the future.

Pitts said the public entry for the new facility would be off Fourth Street.

On one side of the drawing is the jail and secure housing. On the other side is dispatch and the sheriff?s office.

Dispatch also overlooks lobby, and in the middle of the proposed plan, Pitts said, is central control where one staff person is able to supervise the entire housing area for the jail.

?It will keep staffing levels low, and keeps staff away from cells and inmates,? he said.

Once the staff knows how prisoners will behave, there is a 12-bed dormitory because not everyone needs to be locked in single cells, Pitts said.

An indoor exercise area is included, keeping inmates in a secure perimeter.

Work release prisoners would be minimum control and there would be medical isolation cells to protect everyone from tuberculosis, flu or other illnesses.

The new jail would have a kitchen for inmates to prepare meals in-house, along with a laundry facility.

When there is an initial arrest, the plan has a vehicular sallyport for booking, complete with holding cells, DUI checks and for those who would be bonded out.

On the staffing side, around the dispatch is a storm shelter that would have concrete walls and roof. Pitts said that in the event of severe weather that area is protected.

The staffing side would also have offices and records, a multipurpose EOC training room and emergency operations post,storage for evidence and more, he said.

The $3.5 million price tag, he said, includes construction, professional services, testing service, geotechnical work, printing documents and a contingency to plan for anything that might come up.

The jail would be funded with half-cent sales tax increase with the annual payment for the jail at $270,000.

Currently, Marion County?s sales tax exceeds $500,000 so any excess amount would be placed in a separate fund that could only be used toward the jail project.

Questions from the public

Gene Winkler of Marion attended the Wednesday town hall meeting and asked Commissioner Dan Holub what would happen if the sales tax fails.

?What is the next step?? Winkler asked.

Holub said the answer is simple.

?We would need to fix the old jail,? he said.

Winkler said he thinks the only way to fix the problem is to build a new jail.

?There is a misconception going around,? Holub said.

?The fire marshal at his whim could shut us down?not reduce prisoners? just shut us down,? he said. ?Then we start hauling prisoners.?

Holub said it would be the county?s responsibility to bring the jail up to code and go from 11 to seven prisoners.

He added that the sheriff?s office would be hauling prisoners for a long time during the refurbishing because no prisoners can stay there during construction.

Transporting prisoners

The estimated cost to transport prisoners to another county was $300,000.

?This assumes that we are hauling prisoners to Chase County and they may not have room,? he said. ?We have already been there when we had trouble last year.?

According to Holub, the only place the sheriff found to take 10 prisoners was Pratt?s facility.

?We could conceivably be hauling prisoners to four, five or six different jails, depending on where the beds are,? he said.

In the scenario of hauling prisoners to other jails, Holub said the sheriff?s office would take inmates to another location, then take them to court and if there a postponement is given, the inmates are taken back.

?We could have five prisoners in one day and five vehicles on the road (using the transport option).?

New jail is the cure

Winkler said he is not against voting for a new jail.

?People need to realize that all this is going to happen if the sales tax doesn?t pass,? he said.

Jeanice Thomas, another citizen at the Marion meeting, said it wasn?t any secret that she and her husband had problems with size of the first jail proposed two years ago.

?I think you have arrived at a workable solution,? Thomas said. ?Is it possible that sales tax could not be levied on groceries??

Holub said that is all done by the legislature.

He said the county looked at exempting big ticket items and told it couldn?t be done.

Another person asked about the $10 fee.

?It is a non-starter,? Holub said. ?It was a legislative issue and we couldn?t get anyone pushing for it so here we are,? he said. ?If your representatives aren?t going to push, (there?s) not much you can do. Same as the pipeline thing. Can?t get anyone to help us and if nobody helps us we are stuck.?

Concerns about voting ?yes?

One woman said she has concerns about jail because she believes the sales tax is already high enough.

?You raised my property tax and now you want to raise my taxes again,? she said. ?I am disabled and cannot afford either sales or property tax.?

In response to some of her concerns, Holub said the county has looked at other counties, and that state statute requires every county have a jail.

?We have to have a jail,? he said. The county could have holding cells and haul prisoners away if the voters choose to go that way.

?Even if we have to modernize, we have to have an elevator, sprinkler systems, refurbishing estimates and it would be $1.5 million plus,? he said.

Fabricated statement

?The word is being put out that if this fails, we will automatically build a jail with property tax, Holub said. ?It is a fabricated statement to upset people.

?If sales tax fails? no sales tax?no jail,? he said.

Concerns about voting ?no?

?If we spend half the money to fix this (the old jail),? Holub said, ?we go from 11 to 7 beds and we still have to transport.?

The new jail, he said, takes care of the safety issue with dispatch, but if it?s the old jail, the county will still spend $1.5 to $2 million.

?We may save $1.5 million but still have the problems, still committing to hauling prisoners. There is a price to saying no and that is what it is.?

According to Holub, the county would have to do something and that would be a mill levy on property tax.

?It?s something we cannot ignore any longer,? he said about the jail situation.

Winkler added that it was still going to cost the individual people in Marion County if they vote it down and it will be on the property tax to update what exists now.

?We still have to have something to cure the problem,? Winkler said.

Holub added, ?It?s going to cost dearly.?

Misconceptions

Todd Heitschmidt of Marion said there are some misconceptions.

?The folks that are going to get out and vote are not all here tonight,? he said.

One example, he said, is that if the new jail is voted down, the misconception is that property taxes won?t go up.

?But you just said tonight that if we have to spend $1.5 million and never go for an election again, you are going to have to spend that,? Heitschmidt said. ?Real estate taxes will go up (if we are paying) $1.5 million (to refurbish old jail) and have to hire three more people. Property taxes will go up.?

Heitschmidt also asked if anyone has been contacted back by the fire marshal.

Holub said that because the county is working on a plan, the fire marshal is leaving the jail alone.

?We kept getting heat,? Holub said. In addition, he said the county was getting different stuff from different people.

?We knew they were violating their own regulationss related to space,? Holub said, ?and the next day Rob (Craft) got an apology letter (when they were) threatened with an injunction.?

According to Craft, the following week another person from the fire marshal?s office was by and wanted to reinstate the space issue, but had no idea the county had just been through it for the last two months.

?The fire marshal (office) is a nightmare,? Holub said. ?Give us a clean bill of health and the next guy shows up and there?s something different.?

Holub added that even if the proposed jail passes, the county won?t have a new facility the next day.

Former jail committee member

Harry Bennett of Marion asked about costs.

?I want to address a frustration I had from the get-go when we requested operational costs for the jail and those were basically unattainable to get daily cost analysis of what goes in,? he said.

Craft said the jail cost have been tracked in 2009 and 2010 and there are now annual operating costs available.

?My point is that you are going to have operational costs, Bennett said, ?and at one of our meetings it was discussed that you will buy a jail every 10 years through operational cost related to so many salaries, electricity and upkeep.?

Pitts explained that the county and his firm haven?t gone that far yet with designing what the systems will be, but it is something they will look at with first costs having sustainable mechanical systems.

In asking about solar energy, Pitts told Bennett that solar is not the best investment right now.

?The best for this type of facility would be a geothermal type system, which has a much quicker pay back in this type of facility because they are 24-7, 365 days running all the time,? Pitts said.

?Looking at an office building that sometimes takes 15 years to pay back, we are seeing 7 to 8 years payback (on this type of facility) and so what we will do is evaluate what the first cost is in installing the type of system that is within the budget and see if that is the right type of solution to go with this project at $3.5 million,? he said.

Property tax increase?

?I just think to make the decisions you are asking the taxpayers to make when they go to the election in April,? Bennett said, ?they have to understand there may or may not be a property tax increase just to maintain the jail because your operational costs may be more?and maybe they are not.?

Bennett added that there is no place in the handout that says, ?here is what the operational costs are per year.?

?You have what transport cost and facility costs are, but a building does not run on its own with no money.?

Craft said he has spoken with Pitts about this and there are no guarantees.

?I think daily operational costs for utilities is going to be comparable because of the design of the facility with solid glass on north and south walls, which don?t do anything to hold heat in that building,? he said.

Craft said he currently has two jailers and would ask the commissioners if he could hire an additional three more for a total of five to run 24-7 and do away with dispatch personnel going back to the prison area and be exposed to that environment with no training.

?We face the same thing if we upgrade, we have 24-7, which is the same exact thing,? Holub said. ?They cancel each other out. We can only get away with this so long.?

Bennett reiterated that the commissioners must represent those financial figures to the taxpayers because he said it is the crux of the issue, which is how much is the individual going to have to pay.

?This is $3.5 million jail and we are not bound and determined to spend $3.5 million if we get break on construction costs, and labor,? Holub said.

?We may beat that by $500,000. We are trying to keep it as cheap as we can and make it functional for future expansion and not build a new jail.?

Bennett said he is asking for ?specific sharpened pencil estimates? that tell what these things cost.

?Those are the things I am getting generalities,? he said. ?I sit at a desk and operate a business, that I can?t say I estimate, I have to nail it.?

Holub responded that this is not a business.

?Our expenses depend on numbers of prisoners, which comes and goes?there are a lot of variables?there are so many variables, I can sit down and pull my hair out for a month and give an exact number and you are going to wait till we exceed it…and then have this argument again.?

Holub said they have tracked expenses to anticipate costs.

?Andy (Pitts) is the professional in this and he can?t pinpoint the cost of operating a jail because there are fluctuating situations.

The commissioners were planning trips to Goessel, Peabody, Tampa and Lincolnville this week.

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