St. Clair County Board may ask voters for sales tax increase to expand jail

News-DemocratDecember 22, 2013 

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

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The St. Clair County Board on Monday night will consider placing a referendum on the March ballot asking voters to approve a sales tax to fund the $37 million expansion of the county's overcrowded jail.

The board is slated to discuss the proposal during a meeting Monday at the St. Clair County Building in Belleville. The quarter of 1 percent (0.25) sales tax would fund the renovation and expansion of the 43-year-old jail.

Revenue drawn from the tax also may be used for other crime prevention purposes, including hiring officers. The expansion would add nearly 200 beds, but only require four new hires because of a central design.

St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson said the expansion was necessary and federal officials could seek a court order forcing the county to build a new, costlier jail unless action is taken. Planners estimate the cost of a new jail to top $84 million.

"We are trying to be fiscally responsible in doing this. With the sales tax we are trying to make it so everybody pays for it, not just homeowners," Watson said. "Believe me, if the federal government forces us, then property owners will pay for the building. This way we can vote it in and everybody will pay for it. ... We can say we want everybody who shops in St. Clair County or eats at restaurants will be paying their fair share too."

The tax would collect an additional $0.25 from $100 of merchandise purchased in the county.

The proposal does not include a sunset provision, which would restrict the number of years the tax is collected.

A sales tax of the same proposed amount collected about $5.38 million in 2012, according to the county's latest audit. That sales tax is collected by the county to fund flood prevention efforts.

The jail is able to house 418 prisoners, according to state officials. However, the jail regularly holds many more. Between October and November, the jail averaged 462 prisoners per day.

A majority of those prisoners, about 85 percent, face violent or sex-related charges, according to Watson. The jail currently houses 78 people held on murder charges. Some of detained have already been convicted and are awaiting transfer to backed up state prisons.

The expansion would increase the jail's bed count to 525, not including those beds within the infirmary.

Overcrowding and other alleged conditions at the jail have spurred three federal lawsuits from prisoners housed at the jail in the past year.

On Dec. 18, Antoine Baker and Cory Bradley filed separate lawsuits against the county. The prisoners allege conditions at the jail subjected them to "cruel and unusual punishment."

In April, Stanley Chairs filed a similar lawsuit alleging poor conditions at the jail caused him health problems.

"That's the other issue everybody has to think about. A few of these lawsuits and the Justice Department will tell us we have to (build a new jail). Then we may be mandated to build something that is bigger than what we need," Watson said. "This is a real reality. Winnebago (County) received a Justice Department mandate and had to build a 1,000-bed jail. We don't need a 1,000-bed jail."

The expansion also would accommodate more federal prisoners held at the jail. The federal government paid for the construction of the wing the federal prisoners are held and pays the county $75 per day to detain each of the 42 prisoners, Watson said.

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

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