Here I will attempt to answer the most common questions about the Criminal Justice Facilities Project and the funding options available.
- How long has the county been planning this project?
The first study for the need of this project was done in 2010. It was set aside and a wait and see approach was taken. A new study was commissioned in 2016 by the Board of Commissioners and performed by RQAW as the current jail population rose and the opioid/drug epidemic ramped up in our county. Both studies revealed basically the same thing…the inadequacy of the current facilities to meet the needs of Hancock County now and in the future. The board of commissioners immediately began the discussions of the need to move a project forward to meet the public safety needs of our community for the next 25-30 years.
- Is this just a jail to warehouse inmates?
No. Absolutely not. The proposed jail portion of the project is being designed to accommodate up to 438 inmates. That number is the projected need of space through 2035. We are a growing doughnut county. It is important that we prepare for the future and not just react today to our current situation. It is important to note that when the current jail was constructed 30 years ago our county population was around 43,000…today our population is nearly 75,000 and expected to grow to more than 91,000 by 2036. The project as being designed takes into consideration the eventual need of 438 beds and has the flexibility to allow much needed space for additional rehabilitation programs, proper inmate classification, and a safer much more efficient facility. Also please consider the difference between the total capacity and FUNCTIONAL capacity. Functional capacity is 80% of total bed space. Once 80% capacity is reached it becomes very difficult to maintain proper classification and safety. At 80% you really are staring down the issue of overcrowding once again. So, functional capacity of a 438 bed facility is roughly 350 inmates. Over the past year that this project has been discussed in earnest our inmate population has grown from 160 to 250 in a facility with a rated capacity of 157 (126 FUNCTIONAL Capacity)
- With so many unanswered questions and design not even complete, why was this pushed to the ballot so soon?
Simple. Transparency. In all the discussions about the need for this project a few common questions have come up… Does who the next sheriff is going to be change the discussion? Does who the next prosecutor is change it? Are our judges being given the proper sentencing options from a facility standpoint and is it possible that part of the overcrowding is due to too high of bail being set etc? At what better time would the voters of this county want to way in on the discussion than when multiple candidates are running for sheriff, prosecutor, judge, commissioner and council?
In addition to that reason…We are facing a crisis in our criminal justice facilities. There is not time, if we want to be responsible, to wait until the fall or next year or ten years from now. The problem is here today. The need is here today. The crisis is here today. Today, we need solutions. This project will solve the overcrowding issue, give the county much needed space to implement more rehabilitative programs, increase efficiency across the entire criminal justice system and bring us in line with realistic needs going forward for the next 25 years.
Moving forward today puts us 2-3 years away from opening the new facility. In that same window of time our problems will increase as will the cost of any building project. No one WANTS to spend up to $55M to solve this problem just as they did not WANT to solve it for $30 million in 2010. Construction costs will only continue to rise. Kicking this can any further down the road will come at a great cost. Not just the potential millions of dollars in increased construction costs, but the ongoing risk of federal lawsuits for non-compliance and the potential cost of the safety of the employees of this county.
- How much will this project cost on my tax bill if the referendum passes?
The cost of the property tax increase would be $0.1436 per $100 of NET assessed value. This is based on your assessed value minus all standard deductions. Contrary to what has been misreported in the paper, it will not cost $140 a year on a $100,000 home, it will be around $47 per year. Farm ground would be assessed an additional $2.50 per acre on farm ground assessed at $1850 per acre.
- If the referendum fails does that mean the project will not move forward?
No it does not. This project by necessity will move forward even if the referendum fails. The referendum is designed to give the voters of this county a voice in what source the funds to construct the project will come from.
It is important to be clear about this. Law enforcement has the responsibility to enforce the law and attempt to bring those that break the law to justice. Prosecutors have the responsibility to prosecute those individuals in a fair manner to protect the public safety. Judges have the responsibility to judge the facts in a case and pass sentence on those found to be guilty of those crimes. The sheriff has the responsibility to detain and house those who have been found guilty of those crimes. The Board of Commissioners has the responsibility to provide adequate facilities for each of the above to perform those functions and the County Council has the responsibility to set budgets and lay taxes so that each of all those needs can be met. Every one of these functions is distinct and important, but without the Commissioners doing their part to meet the facilities needs…NONE of it can take place. Without the council doing its job by funding the needed projects and providing the necessary manpower to carry out these functions, we are all as a community left unprotected and have failed the main mandate of government…public safety.
- How will we pay for this project?
There are three basic options to fund this project with the potential of a fourth to help pay it off quicker.
- We can fund the entire construction cost with property taxes which would require the referendum to pass.
- We can fund the project solely on income taxes. Or..
- We can fund the project with a combination of both. This option would provide the broadest base of taxpayers and would lessen the burden on any one group or subgroup by spreading the cost over a larger pool of payers. This option would also require the passing of the referendum. Both the board of commissioners and the council have publicly committed to funding the project in this manner if the referendum passes.
Lastly, we will have additional bed space beyond our immediate needs when this facility opens. Rather than continuing to house our overflow inmates in other counties at a great cost as we currently are, we can house other counties’ overflow and allow other counties to help pay our jail off. Instead of our resources going to other counties additional resources could come here.
- How much would the construction bonds cost for this project?
The maximum principal amount of the bonds is $55,000,000 and the maximum annual lease rental is $4,900,000.
- How much additional operating costs would be incurred if this project moves forward?
Contrary to the numbers that have been thrown around by some candidates, the additional operating costs for a fully staffed 438 bed jail facility would be about $1.36 million per year. That is for 17 additional correction officer positions. The number that has been falsely put out is that it would cost an additional $3.8 Million a year. That number is what the TOTAL jail staff would cost annually…including the 29 staff members that are already being funded through other budgets. There will be higher supplies cost in a larger facility. Note though that supplies cost are tied to population by and large. These costs will and have been rising with or without a new facility.
- Why don’t you just increase the capacity of work release and home detention?
Simply put, because there is not enough inmates that are eligible for community corrections. Fact is that we currently are sending people there that probably do not meet the criteria now. Using our successful community corrections program as overflow to help alleviate overcrowding at the jail leads to a revolving door situation and degrades the quality of the program. The proposed project increases the available beds at community corrections drastically for future growth. The fact is, however, if we magically had 100 extra beds there tomorrow we could not fill them with eligible participants nor could we solve the overcrowding issue. We greatly risk diminishing the effectiveness of the entire program and losing the public’s trust if we continue to rely on community corrections to perform a function it is NOT intended for.
- What is the current jail population? How is it trending?
Our total inmate count is hovering at 250. That number includes 30-45 inmates that are being housed in other county jails. One year ago during early discussions the population was at 167. That number has steadily increased over the past year as more and more Level 6 felons have been sentenced to the county jail. As of the last report I received 45 of those level 6 offenders are in the community corrections program. It is important to understand that this overcrowding issue that has been creeping up on us for years was drastically accelerated two years ago when the state legislature changed the felony offense structure and started sending back to the county large numbers of people who previously would have spent their sentences with the Department of Corrections. While that change dramatically improved the state’s jail population and department costs, it has devastated counties all across the state with added costs and facility issues.
- What else besides building this project is being done or could be done to avoid the need?
Hancock County already operates a very effective Heroin Protocol Program. The program is a model for other communities and could be expanded. The probation department has for years been cutting edge on rehabilitation programs but are strapped both by a total lack of space (facilities) and inadequate funding to add and improve programs. There is no ability to classify prisoners properly…It is currently not possible to separate those that genuinely want to change and turn their lives around from those that do not.
- What size income tax would be required to fund this project?
Should the referendum not pass, it would require an increase of .35 to both fund the construction and additional staffing costs at the new facility. Should the council decide to fund additional rehabilitation and drug abuse programs as they have repeatedly said needs to happen, that rate above might rise to maybe .4 in increase. .2 of the increase would go directly to the county for capital costs and the other .15-.2 would be split amongst the cities, towns and county as an increase to the Loit Public Safety Tax. If the referendum does pass it will make this income tax increase much smaller but still necessary as operating costs cannot be paid with the special rate allowed to the county for capital costs.
- What has been done to inform the public about this project?
The Board of Commissioners has held numerous public meetings to give the public opportunity to see the project plan and give public comment. To get the question to the ballot we had the statutorily required two public meetings that each allowed public comment. In addition we had other meetings outside of the requirements where public comment was allowed. There was a one instance where rather than just placing the required public notice to the paper, a 4×6 print ad was purchased in the paper imploring the public to attend and give input. The turnout to all of these meetings were small and disappointing when trying to inform the public about such a large and important topic.
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