Give Madison County voters a say on jail

September 16, 2013 

Madison County is rushing to approve an $18 million jail renovation, but not so fast. That's a lot of money for a project that will not add even one bed to the jail. Is all that spending necessary -- and if so, why borrow when the county has millions of dollars banked?

The County Board isn't interested in getting the taxpayers' opinion. On Wednesday it is expected to authorize borrowing $18 million without putting it to a vote of the people. The public will get a say only if 10 percent of registered voters petition to put it on the ballot within 30 days. That would require people to organize a petition drive and collect 17,145 signatures in one month -- not impossible, but darn close to it.

Even people who support the jail renovation may question the county borrowing the money. Madison County had $23.26 million in reserve on Nov. 30, the end of the fiscal year. That was 57 percent of the general fund budget, an obscene amount to be holding for unexpected expenses.

The county says it wants at least 33 percent of operating expenditures in reserve, which is far too much in our view. Most of that excess money should have stayed in taxpayers' pockets, not county coffers.

Chairman Alan Dunstan said he doesn't know how much this borrowing would increase real estate taxes. And Administrator Joe Parente said he's not sure whether it would be legal to spend the cash on renovations.

This vote needs to be tabled until these and many other questions are answered.

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