Jail's fate is in your hands; St. Clair County puts sales tax on ballot

News-DemocratDecember 24, 2013 

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

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Voters will decide whether a new sales tax will pay to expand the overcrowded jail in St. Clair County.

The St. Clair County Board voted 23 to 2 to place the issue before voters on the March 18 ballot. Republicans Ed Cockrell, of New Athens, and Nick Miller, of Lebanon, voted against the proposal. Democrat Larry Stammer Jr., of Belleville, voted present.

The referendum will ask voters whether the county should levy a sales tax for the $37 million expansion and renovation of the jail. The quarter of 1 percent (0.25) sales tax would add $0.25 for every $100 in merchandise purchased in the county. The tax would not be collected on groceries, medicine and medical supplies. The proposal now includes sunset provision that would end the tax after 25 years.

St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern said the jail was in "dire" need of expansion and the proposed tax is estimated to collect between $4 million and $5 million annually.

"Currently when you let people go on the weekend because the jail population is too high, you've got to make provisions for a larger facility, which is what we're doing here," Kern said. "If this County Board doesn't take action and fix the overcrowding at the jail ... we will have someone come in here and do it for us. So rather than go under a court mandate or mandate from the Attorney General, we would like to take this into our own hands."

St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly said an expanded jail would help keep "higher risk" criminals off the street. The jail regularly detains more prisoners than state officials say are able at the 43-year-old building.

"The County Board has been as financially flexible as they can, the sheriff has done what he can with the current jail, and the judiciary has implemented drug court, mental health court and veterans court as alternatives to incarceration. Still, every day judges make difficult decisions about public safety versus jail conditions and liability, who to let out and who to keep in," Kelly said.

"It would clearly be better if they had the flexibility to err on the side of caution, but with this overflowing jail, higher risk individuals sometimes wind up back on the street."

While state officials believe the jail is able to house 418 prisoners, the jail had 480 inmates on Monday. The jail averaged 462 prisoners a day between October and November. The expansion would boost the number of beds in the jail to 525.

Cockrell said he voted against the proposal because he believes a new jail is needed, not expanding the current building. A new jail is estimated to cost about $84 million.

"I don't think we're doing our due diligence and are being short-sighted by not looking at a new jail," Cockrell said. "If it's $37 million compared to $84 million and I think the job the state's attorney, sheriff, and local municipalities do is so important in fighting crime, we've got to have a place to put (criminals)."

Kern said county officials have worked for years with a panel of experts and architecture firm to be cost-effective.

"I don't think it is fiscally responsible to tell the taxpayers of this county that we propose an $80 million, brand new facility when all the experts have told us that the $37 million renovation and addition to this facility will work," Kern said. "The real estate is already purchased. The location is already there. We can take the existing structure, which is sturdy and strong, and improve it--and save the taxpayers a good amount of money in the process."

Miller said he commended seeking voters approval for the project and the addition of the sunset provision, yet voted against the referendum because the wording was "extraordinarily vague" where the money would be spent.

"(Sheriff Rick) Watson has done a fantastic job. As sheriff he is trying to do the best he can with what he has. I'd love to see him get a state of the art facility to house the number of criminals we have in this county unfortunately. The problem is the question (the referendum) was too vague. If it said the tax was going for the expansion, it would have been just fine," Miller said.

Kern said the wording of the question was put forth by legal counsel. Along with expanding the jail, the proposed tax can also be used to fund some other law enforcement, firefighting and emergency services costs.

County Board member Frank Heiligenstein, a Democrat representing Freeburg, said the referendum needed the full support of the County Board to pass.

"It's going to take everybody on this board, all county officials, to be on board to get this approved because in half the counties this is proposed it goes down," Heiligenstein said. "It's just the nature of new tax proposals."

Sheriff Rick Watson strongly supports the sales tax, and previously said about 85 percent of the prisoners in the jail face violent or sex-related charges. Some of the prisoners have been convicted and are awaiting transfer to state prisons.

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

In other news, the board voted to sell $5.2 million in bonds to upgrade the county's emergency 9-1-1 system. The upgrade was necessary due to a federal mandate requiring such systems to be able to receive text messages and similar files from phones. The county's phone towers and software will be upgraded, and some land may be purchased with the bond revenue.

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

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