By Michael Kleen
Back in July 2003, Winnebago County levied a 1 percent sales tax to pay for a brand-new, $142 million jail, which opened in 2007. Today, that jail is overflowing with prisoners, and local politicians are looking to spend an unexpected increase in tax revenue on hiring more guards. I believe that levying a county sales tax to pay for a new jail was a mistake from the onset, and that we need to find an alternative means of funding the jail while reducing its overall cost.
Winnebago County remains one of the worst counties in the state in terms of crime rate, and the county’s solution to this problem has been to simply lock criminals up and throw away the key. In this endeavor, our new jail has been a success. Crime in Winnebago County dropped 15 percent from 2008 to 2009, and according to Sheriff Dick Meyers, unincorporated Winnebago County saw a 20.9 percent reduction in crime over the past several years. At the same time, the average daily population in the jail has climbed more than 27.8 percent.
This is a very expensive way of reducing crime, one that will cost the county millions of dollars to sustain over the long term. Furthermore, a larger jail filled with more prisoners fails to address the root causes of crime, which means we will need to continue to fill the jail to keep crime rates down.
If it is true that poverty is one of the primary drivers of our high crime rate, then adding a 1 percent sales tax on top of an already high state sales tax was a bad idea. The county sales tax drains between $24 and $26 million out of the local economy every year. That is less money in a person’s pocket to spend at stores, gas stations and restaurants. In turn, these businesses have less revenue with which to hire more employees or expand. By increasing the tax burden on consumers in this county, we may have unwittingly contributed to the problem we were attempting to alleviate.
Statistically speaking, sales taxes hurt low-income families, and I believe they should be dramatically reduced or eliminated altogether. According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a 6 percent sales tax amounts to roughly a 1 percent income tax rate for families in the highest income brackets, a 3 percent income tax on middle-income families and a 4.5 percent income tax on the poorest families. That is because, generally, wealthier families spend only one-sixth of their income on items that are subject to sales taxes, while low-income families spend three-quarters of their income on taxable purchases. A small sales tax increase is felt most strongly by the people who are already struggling to make ends meet.
That is an irresponsible way to pay for government expenditures.
The county board has made a commitment to pay off the jail construction debt using surplus funds from the county sales tax, and I believe they should stick to that commitment. Once the debt has been paid off, however, the board should seriously consider repealing the county sales tax and folding the cost of the jail into other areas of the budget. Not only could costs be reduced through greater efficiency in the county judicial system, but some of the costs of the jail could be paid by the people who necessitate it in the first place: the criminals themselves.
Taxation has a tendency to reduce the thing that is taxed. Instead of taxing consumer spending, we need to “tax crime” more aggressively. Whether that be through raising fines for minor criminal offenses, or a tax on recidivism for repeat offenders. Nonviolent offenders who are unable to pay would be allowed to work off their debt by cleaning up graffiti and roadside litter, working at community outreach programs, or doing other jobs for the county. That way, the burden of paying for incarceration would not fall on the law-abiding citizens of Winnebago County.
It is time we get more creative about finding solutions to our problems, and I believe rethinking the way we pay for the county jail is a good first step.
Rockford resident Michael Kleen is a local author, proprietor of Black Oak Media and candidate for the Winnebago County Board District 8 seat.
From the Jan. 4-10, 2012, issue