St. Clair Co. jail sales tax is hot-button issue

News-DemocratMarch 13, 2014 

St. Clair County voters will consider Tuesday approving a new sales tax to fund a $37 million expansion to the county jail.

The referendum would levy a quarter of 1 percent (0.25) sales tax upon merchandise purchased in the county. The tax would add 25 cents per $100 purchased and would not be collected on groceries, medicine and medical supplies. The proposal includes a sunset provision ending the tax after 25 years.

Supporters of the referendum say it is necessary to expand the 45-year-old jail because overcrowding is forcing law enforcement officials to release inmates. But opponents, including some County Board members, say they will not vote for a tax increase because its unclear how the revenue will be spent.

St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern said all of the tax money generated from the referendum will go toward expanding the jail and increased cost of operating the facility. County officials estimate the proposed tax would bring in about $5.6 million in the first year. Bonds sold to finance expanding the jail will cost $3.1 million annually and the cost of more inmates housed at the jail will top $2.6 million, Kern said. Those costs total $5.7 million annually.

"So together those two figures are far above the sales tax increase but allows us to keep our officers on the street," Kern said. "Our goal is not to reduce sheriff patrols by increasing the size of jail because we need increased personnel to operate this facility. We will need anywhere between 10 to 20 additional officers probably with the increased size of jail and increased size of population we have in there right now."

County Board members Nick Miller, of Lebanon, and Ed Cockrell, of New Athens, both Republicans, along with Larry Stammer Jr., of Belleville, and Frank Heiligenstein, of Freeburg, both Democrats, oppose the referendum because they believe more specifics are needed.

Miller said the referendum was "simply a taxpayer-funded blank check for the Democrats in an election year" because no written assurances dictate the money will be used for what voters are being told.

"If the chairman and the 'Powers That Be' were really serious about trying to pass this referendum, they'd have offered up a very detailed and specific plan to the residents," Miller said. "They wouldn't be trying to scare people into voting for a vague question that doesn't even mention a jail expansion. They wouldn't be telling the people they need $37 million for construction, when they've created a tax increase that will live on for 25 years and raise more than $130 million. I don't blame the residents for their suspicion and apprehensiveness at all."

State officials believe the jail is able to house 418 prisoners, the jail averaged 526 inmates in February. Overcrowding causes up to 40 inmates to sleep on mattresses in the jail's gymnasium and full maximum security cells leaving officers without the option to discipline inmates, according to Jail Superintendent Phillip McLaurin.

The expansion would allow the jail to house 580 beds with the option of another 40 beds if needed. The additional beds are expected to meet county demands for the next 25 years, according to St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson.

St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly said the consequences of overcrowding mean judges must routinely reduce bonds in felony cases and "there is a greater chance dangerous people will be released out into the community where my family lives and where your family lives."

"This region will not move forward unless we can make it safer. We're putting more cops on the street, we've doubled our prosecutions, the courts have cut way back on continuances, we're keeping better tabs on probationers but that's all for nothing if criminals just get released because we don't have a big enough jail," Kelly said. "I strongly support taking this to the voters because big serious decisions like this need to made with the support of the people."

A dozen residents responded to a query from the News-Democrat asking for their opinion of the referendum. All of them, like Richard Harmon of Shiloh, opposed the referendum.

"Even though I am pro law enforcement and support them, I cannot vote for this sales tax," Harmon said. "The sales tax will bring in more than twice what is needed for the new jail. Until they explain in detail what the rest of the money collected is going to be used for, and I am convinced it is 'bracketed' to prevent it being siphoned off for other uses, I just cannot support it."

State law dictates the wording of the referendum and that the tax must be imposed in quarter percent increments. The proposed tax is the lowest amount the county could pursue. If approved, the additional sales tax would raise the county's rate from 7.35 to 7.85 percent. The sales tax rate is 6.85 percent in Madison County and 6.5 percent in Monroe County.

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

The issue

Watson said the jail is only able to hold the most serious of offenders and 82 current inmates are facing murder charges.

The county is attempting to stave off state or federal intervention, such as the federal consent decree impose upon Cook County Jail in 1974, Watson added. State jail inspectors have continually warned the Department of Corrections may petition the Illinois Attorney General to force the county to address housing conditions at the jail.

"The thing I fear is right now we're managing our numbers. If we get a (state) declaration or enter into a (federal) consent decree, they may say you cannot have any inmates over the 418-inmate capacity. If you do, you are going to pay a fine for every inmate over 418. These are the things I'm trying to alleviate," Watson said. "If we pass this tax now, the feds or the state will leave us alone because they know we are trying to fix the problem. If this tax doesn't pass, there will be cases go to court and we will have to enter into an agreement."

Should the county be forced to meet federal or state standards, the costs would be passed unto taxpayers through an increase in property taxes, Watson said.

Expanding the jail through a sales tax would allow up to 15 percent of the cost to come from those living outside St. Clair County, according to County Administrator Dan Maher, as opposed to the costs being covered solely by county residents through property taxes.

"So here's an opportunity for people who pass through this county or stop and shop, and expect to be protected if they get in trouble over here and expect to be taken care of, they also help pay for the additional jail space," Maher said.

Stammer said one of the reasons he did not favor the referendum is because the county needs a new jail in a new location.

"The chairman and the County Board have known for almost a decade that St. Clair County needs a new jail. Building an addition is just kicking the can down the road with the taxpayers hard earned money ...," Stammer said. "I believe that the County Board must step up and provide leadership on this important jail issue. We know we need a new jail.Let's be honest with the people of St. Clair County and tell them the truth. Here is what a new jail will cost, this is how we are going to pay for it and when the new jail is paid for, any temporary tax will go away."

Kern said a new jail would cost more than $100 million to build to match the current's jail capacity after an expansion.

"A new jail at over $100 million is not a responsible option for taxpayers, and that does not include the cost of housing and serving new inmates or tearing down the old jail, " Kern said.

Heiligenstein said part of his concerns with the proposal was the county becoming dependent upon the sales tax and extending the sunset beyond 25 years.

Kern said the County Board has the option to shorten the sunset clause at any time.

County leaders: Extra costs without expansion

County officials supporting the referendum say voters should be aware of the costs of maintaining the aging jail, addressing federal guidelines to accommodate the disabled, and medical costs for officers injured breaking up fights exacerbated by overcrowding.

Without the referendum, the county will continue spending $1.5 million maintaining the jail annually and spend up to $5 million converting the jail to federally mandated standards for the disabled, according to County Director of Buildings Jim Brede. "This project covers all these issues," Brede said.

The workers' compensation costs for correctional officers injured breaking up fights between inmates ranges between $300,000 and $500,000 annually, Maher said. Four officers have been injured breaking up fights in the past three weeks, McLaurin said.

Medical costs to treat inmates injured or sick were about $1.45 million last year. Most of that costs was paying for recovering from fights, McLaurin said.

"We are in dire need of a jail expansion to adequately accommodate people incarcerated here," McLaurin said. "The overcrowding creates excessive stress on officers and frustration on inmates, which results in physical altercations sometimes causing major injuries needing costly, outside medical care."

Time is of the essence because construction costs have been the best rates the county has ever received and interest rates are the most advantageous in decades, Kern said.

Kelly said sometimes a leader has the difficult duty of telling people the tough facts they need to hear and not what they want to hear.

"I have some serious concerns about safety of the corrections officers and liability for the county. Those costs can get passed onto the taxpayer in a way that is more detrimental than a quarter cent sales tax," Kelly said. "I hate taxes but I hate crime more."

Overcrowded conditions have spurred multiple lawsuits from inmates against the county. Three inmates alleging poor living conditions at the jail received $3,500 to settle a lawsuit against the county last year.

Since a state law allowed counties to create the tax beginning in 1996, 36 of the 102 counties in Illinois have adopted a public safety sales tax. If approved, the tax would take effect in July.

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

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