Marion County Commission kicked off public meetings about a proposed 0.5 percent sales tax increase to pay for a new jail Monday in Florence and Tuesday in Hillsboro.
After a presentation about the problems of the current jail and the design of the proposed jail, audience members were given the opportunity to ask questions. In both meetings, the questions mostly related to the sales tax proposal.
Hillsboro resident Alan Goldsby asked how the county was projecting sales tax revenue. Commission Chairman Roger Fleming said the projections used current sales figures. Goldsby said he didn’t think the county should expect sales to remain level.
“I think the economy has its worst days ahead,” he said.
“It’s so easy for me to say, ‘Yeah, I want a nice new jail,’ and vote for sales tax then shop out of county so it’s painless,” Goldsby said.
Terry Hagen asked how much property tax would be required on a $150,000 home per year. At 2.439 mills — the estimated tax required to finance the jail — the annual property taxes on a $150,000 home would be about $42.
Commissioner Dan Holub acknowledged that sales and property taxes put the burden in different places. Sales tax burdens urban areas more, while property tax shifts the burden to farmers.
An audience member asked whether there would be cities with a higher sales tax rate than the 8.8 percent Hillsboro would face if the issue passed. Fleming said sales tax is 9.55 percent in Junction City (11.55 percent in part of the city) and Sedan.
Property taxes in Marion County are higher than many other areas as well, Fleming said.
An audience member asked if the sales tax proposal failed, would the county automatically finance the project with property taxes. No, Holub said. The commission would have to make a decision on what to do, which could include another ballot question in November 2012.
Mike Kleiber asked how much different sources contribute to sales tax. Between 50 and 75 percent of the county’s sales tax revenue comes from utilities. Automobile sales are the next largest chunk, although sometimes those swap spots with retail sales.
Hillsboro Mayor Delores Dalke said car dealers are the biggest source of sales tax within the city.
Kleiber asked whether sales tax could be levied only on utilities. That would require approval from the state legislature, Holub said.
Dalke questioned whether the county really needs to spend money to build new sheriff’s department and 911 offices in the facility. Sheriff Rob Craft said leaving the sheriff’s office in a separate facility from the jail would necessitate an additional jail administrator. Andy Pitts of Treanor Architects P.A. said the jail represents about three-fourths of the cost of the facility.
One audience member asked whether the county would be able to use the sales tax for other projects. Bond counsel David Arteberry said the revenue from the sales tax would be untouchable for any other projects, and that it would be a crime to use it for other purposes. If passed, when the bonds were paid off, the sales tax would have to end, he said. Any extension of the sales tax would have to be approved by voters.
Cathy Deforest said she would prefer a jail be financed with property tax, which she said probably generates more revenue from people who live out of the county — such as absentee landowners and utility companies — than sales tax.
“Sales tax is a psychological drain on the county,” Deforest said. “It’s getting so close to 10 percent.”
One audience member asked Craft about the safety of the jail for staff members. A photograph included in the presentation showed a narrow corridor along the cells. The corridor is narrow enough that an inmate could reach through cell bars to grab anyone walking by, Craft said.
Craft verified that there are times when the only staff in the jail are female dispatchers. In a recent incident, an inmate threw water, probably from the toilet, on a dispatcher while she checked inmates.
Another audience member asked Craft what he would have liked in the design that isn’t included. Craft said he would have liked more storage and office space.
The fate of the current jail was another topic of discussion. Commissioners said they have no intention of demolishing the building. The first floor could be used for offices, and the upstairs would be suitable for storage, Commissioner Randy Dallke said.