St. Clair County goes 'back to the drawing board' to deal with jail

News-DemocratMarch 18, 2014 

Angela Lowe of Belleville talks about why she thinks voting is important.

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Voters rejected a proposed sales tax that would have funded the expansion of the St. Clair County Jail, according to unofficial results Tuesday.

With 26,760 ballots cast, 18,166 voters, or 68 percent, rejected the referendum and 8,549 voters, 32 percent, approved of the proposal.

The referendum would have levied a quarter of 1 percent (0.25) sales tax upon merchandise purchased in the county. The tax would have added 25 cents per $100 of merchandise, excluding groceries, medicine and medical supplies.

Supporters of the referendum believed it was necessary to pay for a $37 million expansion of the 45-year-old jail while opponents say it was unclear how the tax revenue raised would be spent.

The proposed tax spurred a local group of residents based in O'Fallon to oppose the referendum. The residents received organizational help from the political advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, a nonprofit aimed at helping residents push for lower taxes and limited government.

Kent Strang, O'Fallon resident and grassroots and programs director with the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity, said defeating the tax increase was a grassroots victory earned by volunteers calling neighbors, knocking on doors and spreading their message by walking in parades.

"Obviously, we're happy with the result. I think it's great when we see an overwhelming number of taxpayers speak out against higher taxes in St. Clair County. It's exciting when you are able to fight back against higher taxes and for limited government and win. We hope this victory sends a message to all taxing authorities that we are already overburdened with taxes and citizens aren't ready to hand over their hard earned dollars," Strang said.

County officials estimated the tax would have raised $5.6 million annually and included a clause ending the tax after 25 years. St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern previously said all of the revenue raised would be used to repay the cost of bonds to expand the jail and pay for the increased cost of housing additional inmates.

State officials have continually warned county officials the jail was overcrowded. State inspectors believe the jail capable of housing 418 prisoners, however, the building averaged 526 inmates in February. The overcrowding causes up to 40 inmates to sleep in the jail's gymnasium upon mattresses.

The expansion would have allowed the jail to meet state standards to house 620 inmates and was expected to meet the county demands for the next 25 years, according to county officials.

St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly supported the referendum and said he respects the decision of the voters.

"No one is saying we don't need to address the jail and protect public safety, there's just disagreement about how to get it done," Kelly said. "We'll have to go back to the drawing board and work together to find a solution, because public safety cannot be put off to another day. Our future depends on it."

St. Clair County Board member Nick Miller, of Lebanon, did not support the referendum and said voters did not necessarily vote against the jail expansion project.

"Now that we've wasted four months debating a tax increase, maybe now we can all come together and think of ways to fund a jail expansion that's not completely on the backs of taxpayers," Miller said.

St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson supported the referendum and previously said it would have allowed the jail to meet state standards without burdening property owners with increased real estate taxes.

Also on Tuesday, Watson defeated his primary opponent, Roy Mickens, to become the Democratic candidate in a campaign to retain the helm of the sheriff's department in the November election. Watson collected 9,099 votes while Mickens collected 4,671 votes.

The St. Clair County Clerk's Office and the East St. Louis Election Commission said all precincts reported Tuesday night. Voting results will be certified April 8.

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

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