St. Clair County considers expanding overcrowded jail; who will pay for it?

News-DemocratDecember 16, 2013 

Details of the overcrowding at the St. Clair County Jail.

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St. Clair County Board members are considering asking voters to approve a sales tax hike to pay for a $37 million expansion of the overcrowded county jail.

County Board members discussed the issue during a committee meeting Monday night at the St. Clair County Building. The full County Board is expected to consider placing a referendum on the March ballot seeking voter approval during a meeting next Monday, Dec. 23.

St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson said he hopes voters approve a quarter of 1 percent (0.25) sales tax to fund the renovation and expansion of the 43-year-old jail.

State officials believe the jail has a capacity to detain 418 people, yet the St. Clair County Jail regularly holds more prisoners. For example, the jail held an average of 462 prisoners per day between October and November.

About 85 percent of those prisoners face violent or sex-related charges and 78 prisoners are murderers, according to Watson. "We've got a very, very tough job there and we've got some very violent people," Watson told board members.

St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern said board members have been discussing overcrowding at the jail for at least five years.

"This will go on the ballot to give the public a chance to voice their beliefs on this, but we believe this is a good project," Kern said. "This has been done in the best possible way and in the most efficient way for the taxpayers of St. Clair County."

"We are trying to do the best we can with what we've got, but the jail is just getting too old and not big enough for our needs today," Watson said. "The only additions for beds have been paid for by the federal government. Taxpayers have never added a bed to this jail since 1970."

The cost of the proposed jail expansion was not yet available. In July, county officials hired an architecture firm to create expansion and renovation designs. The expansion intends to provide 525 beds for the prisoners.

Watson said the sales tax proposal was the most fiscally responsible way to expand the jail.

"With a sales tax everybody will share the burden, including those shopping here from Missouri or passing through on I-64, not just homeowners," Watson said, noting the jail houses prisoners from Missouri as well as Illinois. "I don't like to see the homeowners always beat up. This should be everybody sharing the burden."

County officials have been warned housing conditions at the jail could spur the Department of Corrections to ask the Illinois Attorney General to force compliance with state standards.

Watson said the county must expand the jail to avoid "serious problems," such as the federal court order which forced officials in Winnebago County, Ill., to build a new 1,000-bed jail.

"That's what you got to contend with here. We can add on here and do something fiscally responsible, something that will keep us the next 20 to 25 years relatively inexpensively. Or get sued in federal court, have to tear the place down and start over again. Then you're talking big money," Watson said.

Kern agreed, and said the Attorney General's Office or federal Justice Department would force the county to expand or build a new jail unless the county takes action. Planners expect the cost to build a new jail to be about $84 million.

"We need to improve operations at the jail," Kern said. "Currently, we are letting people go on the weekends in order to meet our population requirements. This will now allow us to hold prisoners that need to be held."

County Administrator Dan Maher said St. Clair County had an exceptionally large prison population and the county was "running a small prison" in part because the state prison system has no room.

"When I first started here it was unusual for someone to be in the county jail for more than a month or so before processed into the court system. We've now got prisoners spending two, three, four years in jail before processed," Maher said.

St. Clair County currently collects a quarter of 1 percent (0.25) sales tax to fund flood prevention efforts in the county. That sales tax collected about $5.38 million in 2012, according to the county's latest audit. The county collected a total of $8.8 million in sales tax revenue in 2012.

The overall sales tax rate for most of St. Clair County is 7.35 percent. In comparison, Madison County sales tax is 6.85 percent.

The higher rate in St. Clair County stems from the county's tax for flood prevention, plus a three-quarter of 1 percent (0.75) sales tax collected by the Metro-East Transit District and one-tenth of 1 percent (0.1) sales tax collected by the Metro East Park and Recreation District.

The state collects a majority of the tax revenue with a 6.25 percent sales tax.

Some food and drugs are taxed an additional 1.75 percent in St. Clair County and 1.25 percent in Madison County.

Seven rural townships in St. Clair County have a lower sales tax rate of 6.6 percent because the Metro-East Transit District does not collect a sales in Fayetteville, Freeburg, Lenzburg, Marissa, Millstadt, New Athens and Prairie Du Long.

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at dkelley@bnd.com or 618-239-2501.

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