Madison County voters will decide how to pay for $18 million jail project

News-DemocratMarch 12, 2014 

AP GRAPHIC

— A referendum on the renovations at the Madison County Jail will give voters a choice in how to pay for an $18.8 million project.

The question before voters isn't whether the jail needs work: one thing all sides seem to agree upon is that the jail must be renovated.

But when and how to pay for it is the question that will be decided Tuesday.

Madison County Chairman Alan Dunstan said the project will probably happen regardless of what happens with the referendum. But if it does not pass, Madison County cannot issue $18.8 million in bonds to do the project now, and it will be staggered during the next 10 to 15 years.

And that's what Rod Spears of Bonds on Ballot says he would like to see them do. Rather than borrow money to do it all at once, he said they should do it a little at a time. He said that's why his group passed petitions around to get the question placed on the ballot after the County Board voted to approve the bonds last fall.

Sheriff Bob Hertz has not publicly taken a side on how the renovations should be paid for.

"There are few, if any, people who say the renovations aren't needed; the fight, so to speak, is over how to pay for it," he said. "I don't have the checkbook and I have no idea what the financial status of the county is, so I have to rely on what I hear from Chairman Dunstan and (county Administrator Joe) Parente."

All Hertz knows for sure, he said, is the work has to be done. The sewers back up at least once every couple of months; there are ongoing issues with electrical, heating and air conditioning at the facility that drive up the county's utility bills; and the population of prisoners isn't getting smaller.

The jail was constructed for 100 prisoners, and later the cells were doubled and finally expanded to house 300 prisoners. But the support systems remained the same: infirmary, cafeteria -- even the plumbing and electrical systems are still designed for only 100 prisoners. Food is kept in a trailer sitting on the parking lot, and the infirmary no longer has a sick cell, so sick prisoners are returned to the cell block with the general population.

And there is only one sallyport, a secured vehicle entrance for bringing in new prisoners. This leads to a backlog of squad cars on weekend nights, sometimes circling the block waiting their turn to drop off prisoners.

One item that tops most of the to-do lists: there are no sprinklers in the jail in case of fire, which means it does not meet current building codes.

That also raises the issue of liability, Hertz said.

"We get sued with some regularity by prisoners on a variety of things, and one thing that should be kept up to speed is that the jail should be consistent with current code," Hertz said. "If a prisoner gets hurt or God-forbid dies, the settlement could be astronomical."

Dunstan said staggering the work will cost the county a lot more money. Single projects tend to have higher bids than bidding one large project, and costs go up every year, he said.

To that end, Dunstan said the county plans to abate the tax for the jail bonds from the general fund.

"The taxes will not increase," he said. "When you put something in a referendum, people automatically think it will increase their taxes."

While exact figures can't be calculated until evaluations are done later this year, the county estimates based on last year's evaluations that the jail bonds would cost approximately $7.89 per year for the owner of a $100,000 home. Dunstan pledged that the general fund would be reduced to cover that increase.

But Spears said he thinks the county "didn't do this correctly."

"They didn't consider the voters and the taxpayers when they did this," he said. "Lots of people told me they think (Dunstan believes) they're too stupid to understand it. The bottom line was that the public heard there could be a tax increase and they didn't support this one bit."

Spears said he thinks the county should use its existing cash reserves for a piecemeal project. But Dunstan said even if it doesn't cost more to stagger the projects, the county reserves will be needed for other projects, such as courthouse renovations. He also said putting out the bonds will help the county: its credit rating is currently AA, and they cannot get a AAA rating because Madison County is virtually debt-free. Its only debt is the existing jail bond, due to expire in 2015.

"You can sometimes save money by borrowing for these situations," Dunstan said. "The bottom line is, I feel by doing the bonding it will be a lower cost to the taxpayers than doing this piecemeal."

But Spears said his group disagrees, and voted not to support the referendum. They are using robocalls and mailings to try to persuade voters to say no, he said.

"Our group ... is perfectly willing to sit with Chairman Dunstan and work with them to establish some priorities, tackle the projects that are most critical, but let's not issue an $18 million bond issue that is not required," he said. "People told us, we don't need any more taxes."

One point most agree on is that spending money on a jail isn't a popular idea. Dunstan has said he does not think the referendum has a good chance of passing, and Spears said he believes it could be 70 percent to 80 percent against.

But Hertz pointed out that many people in the jail are not yet convicted of anything. "There are a lot of people who think money shouldn't be spent on people in jail," he said. "Many of these people are innocent until proven guilty."

Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at edonald@bnd.com or 618-239-2507.

About the referendum

Question: Shall Madison County issue bonds in the aggregate principal amount not to exceed $18,885,002 to construct, expand and remodel the county's jail?

A "yes" vote approves the bonds, which would pay for the renovations immediately. The estimated tax increase would be approximately $7.89 for the owner of $100,000 home.

A "no" vote means the county would have to stagger the work during the next 10-15 years.

Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at edonald@bnd.com or 618-239-2507. About the referendum

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