EDWARDSVILLE — County Board Chairman Alan Dunstan fired back at opponents of the proposed jail renovation, saying they were distorting the facts in their effort to get the measure placed on the March ballot.
Dunstan said he supports the right of county Treasurer Kurt Prenzler and Bonds on Ballot coordinator Rod Spears to collect signatures in support of placing the sale of $18 million in jail bonds on the ballot.
"What I do not support, what I find very disturbing, is this is either a clear distortion of facts by Mr. Prenzler and the individuals who are distributing the petitions, or they have a lack of understanding of the issues," Dunstan said.
Dunstan said residents have told him they've been warned of property tax increases of $200 to $300 a year. While actual tax rates are not yet available for next year, Dunstan said the county intends to absorb the increase caused by the jail bonds within the usual 4 percent levy increase by reducing spending in other areas.
Dunstan estimated that the 2014 tax levy will have an increase of $595,000, which would include all increases, including the jail bonds. At most, he said, a resident owning a $100,000 home would see a $3 increase in his or her county property taxes.
Prenzler said he was not aware of anyone warning of $300 increases. No one yet knows exactly how much the jail bonds would increase taxes, since the funding has not yet been set, Prenzler said.
Currently, the owner of a house valued at $100,000 pays approximately $212 a year in county property taxes, not including any homestead exemptions that may apply.
Dunstan said Prenzler and "other members of the Tea Party" are either unaware or deliberately misleading citizens. Prenzler declined to say whether or not he was a member of the Tea Party.
"This is obviously a smear campaign from people terrified of the voters getting a say in the matter," Prenzler said.
Spears said the petition drive is not a political matter. "There's no reason to talk about a political party or the Tea Party or anything," Spears said. "There is nothing whatsoever involving the Tea Party in any discussion."
Prenzler called the jail bond issue a "back-door referendum," and said in Missouri, the law would require the bonds be placed on the ballot.
The Madison County State's Attorney confirmed that the County Board does not have the authority to put the jail bonds on the ballot. Board members can issue the bonds without a referendum, or they can call for an advisory referendum that would have no legal impact. But only the voter petition, signed by 10 percent of registered voters, puts a binding referendum on the ballot.
"It is not a discretionary decision that can be made by the County Board," Dunstan said.
Spears declined to speak about that, reiterating that he would have preferred they phase the project over a number of years within existing funds rather than issue bonds. Prenzler said he would have preferred the County Board put an advisory referendum on the ballot and promise to abide by the voters' decisions.
The last advisory referendum in Madison County was about the future of the Shelter Care Home. More than 80 percent of voters opted to keep the home open, but the county board closed it in 2008.
Madison County has about $25 million in reserves, which Bonds on Ballot has argued should be used for the jail renovations instead of borrowing more money. "All this borrowing has to be repaid through real estate taxes," Prenzler said.
But Dunstan said some of the reserves will be needed for other capital improvements, including major restoration work at the Madison County courthouse, as well as maintaining enough reserves for six months' of county operations.
"The rehabilitation of a jail we are required by law to operate and which has critical needs is, I believe, a reasonable, viable expense for taxpayers and Madison County government," Dunstan said.
One thing both sides agree upon: a referendum would be unlikely to pass, given that the renovations are being made to a jail.
"There's no doubt about it," Spears said. "It's a bigger issue (to renovate) a jail than a school. That's the reason they did it the way that they did."
But Dunstan has said even Republican County Board members agree that the jail needs renovations, including sprinklers and ventilation systems as well as additional sallyports and other security measures.
"I respect the rights of the individuals who are circulating petitions on this issue," Dunstan said. "But I have no respect for a campaign based on distorted facts and misinformation... (Madison County residents) need to have the true facts when they make their decision."
Bonds on Ballot must collect nearly 18,000 signatures in order to force a referendum. Spears said they do not have hard numbers on how many signatures they have gotten so far, but he is "very optimistic." They have also created a "500 Club," he said, which will reward people who get more than 500 signatures with a ceremonial dinner celebration.
Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at email@example.com or 239-2507.