Debate in town meetings

BeckerEnosPA020032.jpg
BeckerEnosPA020032.jpg

Marion County Sheriff Lee Becker chats with Marion resident Eugene Enos about jail issues during the public-comments meeting in Marion on Thursday night.

In Marion: Proposal stirs questions, mixed reviews

While many Marion County residents understand there are problems with the county jail and improvements are needed, some told county commissioners at Thursday?s public meeting in Marion they are uneasy with raising the sales tax.

Eugene Enos of Marion said he is concerned the public meetings and information about the plan for a new $8.5 million jail is almost too little, too late.

?We have 30 days left (before the election) to get basic information? a hurried decision on something of this magnitude.?

He also asked if the potential revenue generated from the new jail will pay the full operational costs and, if not, how will it be paid?

?It?s going to take two years to get the new building up,? Enos said.

One woman came out in support of the proposed sales tax increase.

?Why continue to put a Band-Aid on the problem?? she asked. ?The present jail is costing a lot and we have to be prepared (for the future).?

Tony Rangel, an architect with Law/Kingdon of Wichita, the firm hired by the county in April 2007, provided information from the Kansas Department of Revenue for Marion County?s retail sales.

He said the figures have steadily increased during the past five years, going from $28 million in 2003 to $36.2 in 2007. The 2008 retail sales total thus far is $29.2 for the first three quarters.

Regarding timelines for the new jail complex, Rangel said the project schedule will be identified in more detail following the results of the sales-tax vote.

Enos said a higher sales tax could push shoppers to buy outside the county.

?What businesses have been lost in the last 12 years?? he asked. ?I cannot buy a suit, shoes or dress shirt (in Marion) and when looking at parked cars in town, many don?t have a ?Hillsboro? (dealership logo).?

Rangel cited retail sales in Sumner County, where a new jail was built in 2002. Retail sales rose from $131 million in 2003 to $154 million in 2007, he said.

As the election draws near, the three commissioners, Randy Dallke of Peabody, Chair Bob Hein of Hillsboro and Dan Holub of Marion, along with Rangel, will continue discussing why a new $8.5 million complex is the best option.

Rangel said the purpose of these meetings, held in Peabody last Monday, Hillsboro Tuesday and Marion Thursday, are to gather and distribute information to help voters decide whether to pass a 1-cent sales tax to pay for a new jail complex.

The current jail, built in the 1930s, and the addition built in the 1980s, has a combined square footage of 7,106.

The new jail would be almost four times larger than the current jail complex. It would be 26,200 square-feet and meet fire and safety codes and other correctional association standards, Rangel said.

Reiterating what was said at the two other meetings, Rangel spoke about the current jail and why it does not meet the county?s future needs. He talked about overcrowding in the years to come, citing an 8 percent prisoner growth rate per year.

Based on the growth figure, and without a new complex, the result would be a subsequent out-of-county cost for prisoners being housed elsewhere.

Other issues supporting the new jail included outsourcing food and laundry services; staffing issues; limited parking and lack of expansion options at the current location.

The jail, which is also home for 911/Emergency Medical Services, is located in a flood plain and does not meet the standards of the American Correc?tional Associa?tion, an organiza?tion involved with accreditation, standards and other aspects to assist correctional institutions, Rangel said.

Safety issues included the building 911 dispatchers work in.

?The scariest part,? Holub said, ?is (dispatchers) are working in a building with a tin roof that could cave in (during a major storm or tornado)?it?s an absolute danger.

?If there was a direct hit, they (employees) would be in trouble?it?s a life and death issue.?

Rangel said the benefits of a new jail/911 EMS operation would include 78 beds as opposed to 11; better classification of inmates regarding maximum, medium or minimum status, trustees and work-release prisoners; improved staff efficiency

Again addressing the commissioners and Rangel, Enos said he wanted more information on the feasibility of outsourcing prisoners and if this might be a better option than building a new jail.

Rangel said he would look into that question and come back with an answer in a couple of weeks.

When Rangel talked about the new jail and extra revenue that could be made by housing prisoners from other counties, one man spoke up.

?Will our sheriff be a businessman rather than a law enforcement officer?? asked Anton Epp of Goessel.

Rangel said some counties in the area will have to outsource eventually.

If a new jail would look at increasing its revenue by housing prisoners from other counties, Epp asked: ?Should we be praying for more crime??

Holub said the proposed new jail would be a revenue source and any money over and above the jail?s operating budget would go into the general fund.

?Even though you (commissioners and architect) are painting a rosy picture,? one man said, ?what happens if sales tax revenues go down? It could mean raising the mill levy on top of the sales tax.?

Ruth Lang of Marion asked if the commissioners could provide a specific location for the proposed new jail.

She said many people have a general idea of where the jail would be located within the industrial park, but the details have not been fully explained.

Rangel said he would have the information at the next meetings, which are scheduled for Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, Oct. 20, 21, and 23. The time and location were unavailable.

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