Supporters of the $37 million St. Clair County Jail expansion are using fear to try to get a sales tax increase approved.
A mailer sent out by the group Citizens for Public Safety warns that prisoners are being released every week because of jail overcrowding: "The front door opens, and prisons are let back on the streets." But if voters only will approve a 0.25 cent sales tax, the jail can expand to hold all the prisoners.
In big, bold print: "Better in our house -- than yours!"
If that doesn't scare you enough, the mailer includes this dire warning: "If this proposition fails, it could result in the federal government forcing St. Clair County to build a brand-new jail that could cost millions more than the current plan. Worse, this would mean a property tax increase with homeowners footing the bill!"
Are you shaking and ready to vote for a tax increase now?
There's definitely a need for more beds in the jail, and we'd like to be able to support this measure. If all the county wanted was the $37 million, it would be easy to support it.
The problem is, the county plans to collect this tax for 25 years, which would generate more than three times the cost of the expansion. In 2012 the county collected $5.38 million from its 0.25 percent sales tax for levee repairs. At that rate over 25 years, the jail tax would bring in $134.5 million.
How would the county spend the rest of the money? It's not clear. Sheriff Rick Watson has said some jailers would be added, but that doesn't account for it all.
This is too much money over the cost of renovation and expenses to hand over to politicians. St. Clair County has done a poor job of spending other tax dollars, including at money-losing MidAmerica Airport and $500,000 to design a high-speed rail station in East St. Louis with no guarantee it will ever be built.
If the referendum fails on March 18, don't be afraid. The county can come back with a tax that sunsets as soon as the jail work is covered. If the request matched the identified need, supporters likely wouldn't have to resort to fear to get it approved.