Viewpoint: More jail questions

A worsening economy is causing local governmental units to feel the pinch of dwindling funds. Consequently taxpayers may be hit from all sides this fall with requests to approve tax hikes.

The two principal issues are likely to be a proposed increase in the county sales tax and an extension of the school district’s property tax beyond its scheduled expiration next year.

R.E.A.C.H. is already on the record in opposition to any more taxes for schools, and taxpayers are beginning to sound off

about the county’s proposal to build a $130 million jail.

The jail would be financed by a one percent boost in the retail sales tax. Plans are giving rise to a number of questions about the proposal.

Here are some of the questions readers have submitted to us.

Tom Jencius wonders: if the planned sales tax hike yields more than $23 million and a little more than $9 million of that goes to pay off the bonds over 22 years and another $12 million goes for staff, programs and other needs, that’s only a bit more than $21 million. Where does the other $2 million go?

Not long ago, the county found $2 million in its budget after county departments were forced to cut staff and expenditures. The explanation was “conservative accounting.” If that’s so, what about the figures we’ve been given?

Jencius notes the proposed tax is called public safety funds and asks: “Is this a dedicated fund or just additional dollars in the county budget without restrictions?” He said there is no real reason to believe the entire $12 million will be needed in the beginning for staff and other items.

What if the county decides to build a lesser amount of bed space? Winnebago County State’s Attorney Paul Logli has said that 1,200 beds is not a fixed number. “What if they get the tax increase and then decide to build only 1,000, 800 or 600 beds with the potential to expand, if needed, in the future? Kris Cohn said there is no plan to sunset half the sales tax after the bonds are paid off,” Jencius said.

We’ve been told the county board could always reduce it later or maybe just have another $10 million in its coffers. Jencius said the issue has been discussed for a decade or more. “The last and only estimate I heard of was around $50 million,” he said. “Is this a back door referendum for Perryville Road or other unfunded projects? Where is the jail in the county’s comprehensive plan? Where has it been? Was it the number one priority? Has public safety been underfunded to create this problem?,” he asked.

Attorney Larry Morrissey is a member of the county’s site selection and design subcommittee on the jail plan. He has a number of questions regarding this project.

Morrissey wants to know why this building should cost so much? The estimate last year was $57 million, now it’s $130million. Clayton, Mo. built a 1,200-bed jail for $85 million.

He also wants to know what do other similarly-sized jails cost?

Morrissey asks what is the actual projected cost to the county if federal authorities force it to cap the jail (population) and send inmates to other counties? How much would lodging and transportation cost? Do we save anything?

He said numbers used in the Master Plan Executive Summary showed an approximate cost of $50 per inmate per day for a total (on 250 inmates) of $12,500 daily or an annual cost of $4.5 million. That is a mere fraction of the yearly cost of $23 million for the latest proposal.

Operating costs projected for the referendum is for only an estimated 800 inmates, Morrissey said. He asks: “Will we face an additional tax for operating costs if we end up using the full 1,200 beds? If so, how much?” How would we pay these additional costs?

Another point: What would it cost to build a new jail with all the necessary support facilities in an area outside of downtown? Would there be positive or negative development costs for such a plan?

Morrissey also would like to know if there’s any guarantee the income from the sales tax will be used solely for public safety needs and not for some other projects. He also wonders, if more money is raised than needed to pay for a new jail and its operations, do the taxpayers get the difference back?

He also notes that Winnebago County is much slower than other counties at processing jail inmates. Some 80 percent of those in jail are there awaiting trial. In other counties it’s only 60 percent. Does that mean beds are occupied here longer than they should be?

In that regard, how many beds will be available at the present jail and the satellite jail?

What are the plans for the old jail? Is there money to update and renovate it?

Morrissey also asks: Will this referendum result in a decrease in recidivism? If this proposal passes how much of a decrease in the arrest rate do we forecast?

The question most important to the majority of us…if all the planned or contemplated tax referenda are passed, what will be our projected sales tax and property tax?

These are by no means all the questions, but there is one more we will include: Who has overall responsibility for the criminal justice system? This project appears to have no accountability linked to it and is again a piecemeal approach to a systemic failure.

If you have questions about the proposed new jail, let us hear them and pass them on to the county board. Citizen input is long overdue.

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