Be proactive on St. Clair County Jail project

March 22, 2014 

State's Attorney Brendan Kelly said it's "back to the drawing board" after voters rejected a sales tax increase for a St. Clair County Jail expansion. But a new set of blueprints really isn't necessary, just some tweaks to the existing plans.

The idea of funding the expansion with a sales tax rather than property taxes is a good one. The problem wasn't the tax itself -- people know more space is needed -- but rather that county leaders overreached.

They could have sought only the money needed to fund the construction. Instead they sought tens of millions of dollars of extra revenue to pay for salaries and it never was clear what else.

County Board Chairman Mark Kern made the point prior to the vote last week that 0.25 cent was the smallest amount the state would allow the county to levy. What he didn't say was that the county could have the tax sunset after six or seven years -- as soon as the construction costs were covered.

If county leaders want to be proactive and avoid a potential federal mandate to replace the jail, they will put this back on the ballot in November with a much earlier sunset. The only way the tax could be extended would be by another vote of the people.

As for covering the operational costs, there are ways to manage those without a tax increase. For instance, would the jail really need 15 to 20 extra jailers as Kern said?

Could the county decrease the jail population not by early releases but by accepting fewer federal prisoners? The extra revenue from federal prisoners isn't worth it if the county doesn't have enough room for its own needs.

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