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Public sounds off: County promotes new jail project

Staff writer

(Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of informational items related to the jail project bond issue and sales tax that will be voted on Nov. 4.)

There were three public forums in three cities within four days for Marion County residents to hear information about a proposed county jail.

Each forum offered the same information but the moods of the crowds definitely were different.

Some people were in attendance to hear the information, to make informed decisions. Others were at the meetings to talk against the project. And then there were those who were in support of the project.

The facts

Fact 1. Marion County cannot continue using its jail as it is indefinitely.

Tony Rangle, architect with Law Kingdon of Wichita, said the county was more or less on borrowed time with the state fire marshal’s office. The county already had to make some adjustments to the jail facility including additional personnel, in order to remain open.

Rangle also commented that the fire marshal’s office was “watching the outcome” of the bond election to determine its next move against the county.

Fact 2. There are three options the county can take to remedy the situation.

The first option is a new 78-bed facility which is what county voters will decide in a few weeks. The estimated cost would be $8.65 million which could be funded through a one percent or one-cent countywide sales tax. If the bond issue and sales tax increase is approved by voters, the facility would be constructed at Marion Industrial Park.

With the current population being between 10-15 inmates, the remaining beds could be used by inmates from other counties. If Marion County was to house inmates from other counties, Marion County would have the right to pick and choose the types of prisoners it would house.

“There wouldn’t be any Dennis Rader-types here,” commissioner Dan Holub said.

Another group of prisoners that could be housed in the expanded jail would be those from immigration services.

A second option would be to remodel the current facility at the same location.

The challenge with that proposition, Rangle said, is the age of the building and the fact that it also houses 911 emergency dispatch. Currently the dispatch center is located on the second floor of the building which is not a safe location in case of a tornado. So if a remodel is what taxpayers want, a separate 911 dispatch building would need to be built to accommodate the renovations of the jail to meet state code and to provide a safe location for emergency workers to operate in case of disaster.

The cost to remodel the existing 11-bed jail and erect a new 911 dispatch center is about $5.1 million.

One of the main issues with this scenario, Rangle said, is that it will not take care of the future inmate population which continues to increase each year. So, in five years or less, the county will be faced with another decision regarding housing inmates.

A third option is to take Marion County prisoners to other facilities. The average cost right now is around $30 per prisoner per day. During the past few weeks, the jail census has been around 15 inmates. So, if 15 inmates are taken to other facilities, it would cost the county $13,500 per month to house them elsewhere.

Additional costs would be additional personnel to transport the prisoners and new vehicle rotation. Prisoners are required to be in court for most hearings, most particularly trials. Some video court appearances could be arranged, but the majority of the court appearances would be in-person, thus the need for additional personnel and vehicles.

State statute requires each county in Kansas to take care of its own prisoners. If prisoners are taken to another facility, the county from which the prisoner originated/charged with a crime would still be responsible.

Fact 3. If a one percent sales tax is implemented, statistics indicate that sales tax revenue does not decrease.

Trends in Sumner County, where a jail was built several years ago, show a continued increase in sales tax during the past several years despite an increased sales tax.

There are no guarantees that sales taxes will continue to increase as they have in Marion County during the past months, but experts can only follow trends to form an analysis.

Fact 4. If a one percent sales tax is approved in the Nov. 4 election, the sales tax increase can only be used to pay on the bond for the jail. Nothing else.

The state collects and disperses those funds. When the bond is paid, the one-cent sales tax will end.

Fact 5. If a one-cent countywide sales tax is adopted, Florence and Hillsboro would have two of the highest sales taxes in the state at 8.3 percent.

Other cities with more than an eight percent sales tax are Bonner Springs, 8.05-8.15 percent, Caney, 8.05 percent, Cherryvale, 8.05 percent, Desoto, 8.05-8.15 percent, Neodesha, 8.3 percent, Tonganoxie, 8.05 percent, and Wamego, 8.05 percent.

There are transportation districts with higher sales taxes.

In comparison with neighboring cities, McPherson, Newton, El Dorado, and Wichita have a 6.3 percent sales tax, Emporia, 6.8 percent, and Salina and Abilene, 7.05 percent.

One issue that was not addressed at any of the meetings was if Marion County decides to transport prisoners to another facility and that facility can pick and choose the type of prisoners it takes, who will take Marion County child molesters?

The commission and architect will review public comments. Another series of meetings is planned prior to the election to address the questions and concerns expressed this past week.

Comments from the public

The main point of contention at the Hillsboro public forum was the one-cent sales tax. At the other forums, there were general comments and concerns expressed.

Here are the comments from the public meetings.

  • The sales tax needs to be reduced instead of increased.
  • Seventy-five percent of our business comes from neighboring counties. We’re in a low economy right now. People aren’t going to come to Hillsboro to shop if there is an increased sales tax. Hillsboro provides almost half of the total sales tax in the county. Other counties are growing. Marion County is not.
  • How about more research for a smaller jail? Sales tax has to be paid wherever the buyer lives. “I’m at a $500-$900 disadvantage,” Danny Flynn, manager of Midway Motors of Hillsboro said, referring to the difference in sales tax car buyers would have to pay compared with neighboring counties and if an additional one percent sales tax was implemented.

Rangle said that he was not aware of a county sales tax revenue decreasing because of an increase in the tax. Sumner County built a jail several years ago and its sales tax revenue has increased, enabling that county to pay off its debt in less than 10 years.

  • Has there been a market analysis?
  • Can other counties commit money toward the project?

Answer: Rangle responded that there is a market analysis available for jails. Other counties won’t sign contracts to commit a certain number of prisoners to Marion County until a jail is actually built.

  • If the cost of transporting prisoners is so prohibitive, why would other counties pay to bring prisoners here?

Answer: Some county jails are over-crowded and those counties have no choice but to ship out their prisoners, Rangle said. Butler County is one of those counties and will be looking at close options for housing their prisoners.

  • If a 78-bed jail is built, there is no way Marion County is going to be full all of the time. Marion County needs to consider it an expense for it to house its prisoners at $30 per day.
  • What will utilities and other operating expenses be?

Rangle said he was still working on the figures.

  • What if sales tax revenues decline and there aren’t sufficient revenues to pay the bonds?

Answer: Sales revenue has increased in Marion County during the past several years, Rangle said. In order for sales tax revenue to decline so much that the county can’t pay the bond, one-third of the economy would have to disappear.

  • What if sales revenue shifts to other cities with lower sales taxes?

Answer: Rangle said sales tax revenue in Sumner County has continued to increase despite a higher sales tax.

  • Marion County is not the size of Sumner County and should not be compared with that county.
  • Answer: Chase County also saw an increase in sales tax after it adopted a one-cent sales tax.
  • Are those sales tax revenue figures true increases or inflation?
  • Will a declining population mean a declining sales tax?
  • Answer: Trends have indicated that despite anticipated population declines of one percent per year, sales tax revenues continue to increase.
  • A 15-20-bed facility would replace what we have at a lower cost. Why not go with that size?

Answer: The 20-bed facility would be full within nine years if the current inmate population continues to increase as it has in the past.

  • Why aren’t individuals or companies building jails?

Answer: The state doesn’t allow privatizing of jails. Each county is responsible for its inmates.

  • A 20-bed jail could be built and paid off and then the next 20-bed facility could be built and paid off.

Answer: The county still would have to pay for the operations of the facility and have the same number of personnel, whether it’s a 20-bed facility or a 78-bed facility, Rangle said. The cost per bed would increase with the smaller facility.

  • Sedgwick County actually releases prisoners when its jail is full. If we do that, we’re not losing criminals, we’re gaining criminals.
  • If the bond and sales tax issues fail in the November election, will a new jail project or improvements still be made?

Answer: The county commission can only operate within the scope of the county budget. If some improvements can be made within that scope, then it can be done without any further action from the public. If bonds are required, even if those bonds are paid with property taxes, the public has to approve the project.

  • How much money has the county spent to this point for this project? (Architect fees, promotion, etc.)

Answer: Between $80,000 and $90,000.

  • There have been a lot of businesses closed in Marion. When people go out of town to buy items they no longer can get locally, they also buy things that can be purchased at home. Sales tax is the best option for farmers but one taxpayer is worried about small business owners.
  • What is the occupancy rate at Sumner County?
  • Some constituents want to see information from the Chase County Jail regarding construction costs, cost of operations, and revenue stream from housing other prisoners.
  • What about the families of the prisoners? Will they follow their loved ones to Marion and live here?
  • “I don’t think a one percent sales tax is much to pay for what we’re getting,” said Lois Johnson of Marion. “Visitors to the county will help pay for the sales tax. I don’t want to put a Band-Aid on the current jail. I would rather see a new jail. I used to work at the county jail and I, too, am concerned about the safety of staff.”

Last modified Oct. 8, 2008

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