Hancock officials stress need for bigger jail, new office building

SKETCH SHOWS the proposed new county office building on West Main Cross Street. (Sketch provided)

By JIM MAURER
STAFF WRITER

The need to expand the Hancock County jail and construct a new county office building was stressed Friday by Hancock County Commissioners Brian Robertson and Tim Bechtol, who spoke at the county Republican Party’s First Friday lunch.

Expanding the county’s 98-bed jail would cost nearly $12.5 million if 156 beds were added, while $10 million would be spent to build a 40,000-square-foot court and administrative building, the commissioners said.

A sketch of the office building was included in their presentation.

A 0.25 percent, 20-year sales tax increase on the Nov. 7 ballot in Hancock County would be used for jail expansion and staffing, and construction of the office building, Robertson and Bechtol said.

A separate 0.25 percent, 10-year sales tax renewal will be listed on the ballot as being for the county’s general operations but would be earmarked by the commissioners for continuation of flood-reduction efforts.

Hancock County is the only county in Ohio that earmarks a portion of its sales tax revenue for a non-operational fund, according to the commissioners.

If both proposed sales taxes are approved by voters, Hancock County’s total sales tax will increase from 6.75 percent to 7 percent. The state receives 5.75 percent and the county would receive the remainder.

The county has a permanent 0.75 percent sales tax. This includes a longtime 0.5 percent sales tax, plus a 0.25 percent tax that was imposed by the commissioners last month. The 0.25 percent tax is earmarked for general operations of various county departments.

Each 0.25 percent sales tax generates about $3.1 to $3.5 million annually.

During a nearly hour-long PowerPoint presentation Friday at the Dock behind St. Marks United Methodist Church, the commissioners and other elected county officials focused on what has been done and what will be done with voter approval of the two issues.

A majority of Friday’s presentation focused on the jail expansion and construction of the county office building.

The bigger jail is necessary to alleviate overcrowding, eliminate housing of local prisoners at jails outside the county, to provide medical, detox and mental health services for prisoners who need them, and to meet the changing dynamics of the inmate population, the officials said. There is limited space for female inmates at the jail.

The jail expansion would connect to the existing jail and extend west into a city-owned parking lot. There has been no agreement approved by the city for county use of that land.

Sheriff Michael Heldman discussed the cost of housing prisoners outside the county, which is on pace to be more than $400,000 this year.

The county has to house nonviolent fourth- and fifth-degree felons locally, rather than sending them to state prisons, because of overcrowding at the state level.

The jail expansion would include an arraignment/hearing room, so prisoners would not have to be escorted to court in view of the public.

A previous justice system report, updated in 2012, recommended a 156-bed jail expansion to meet county needs to 2040. That recommendation was based on an expected increase in misdemeanor prisoners. The county is now dealing with more felony prisoners.

The state Bureau of Adult Detention estimates the cost to build a detention structure at about $80,000 to $100,000 per inmate bed.

Other infrastructure problems at the courthouse and the current jail would also be addressed with the sales tax funds, including repairs to the courthouse exterior, security entrance, cellblock doors, and floor repairs in the jail’s outdoor exercise area.

The proposed county office building, with about 40,000 square feet, would house probate/juvenile court and could house adult probation offices, the public defender, and other county departments currently using leased space. These offices should be in county-owned space, Robertson said.

There is also a need for additional record storage space, as required by law, he said.

The new office building would replace an 1865 building at 308 Dorney Plaza, which could be used by the county for other purposes or demolished. The building provides no security for the juvenile/probate court that is housed there.

The construction would create a county courts corridor.

Over the 20-year life of the sales tax, the commissioners said nearly $12.5 million would be spent for the jail expansion, $22 million for additional staff and operation of the jail expansion, and $10 million for the court/administrative building.

Also, $13 million would go toward mechanical/structural maintenance, and about $7.3 million for repairs to existing buildings.

Discussing flood-reduction efforts, the county has purchased about 160 properties in the flood zone, most with sales tax funds, and most of those properties have been demolished, the commissioners said.

There have been two maintenance projects along the Blanchard River to clear trees, brush and debris during Robertson’s tenure as commissioner at a cost of about $1.3 million. A third maintenance project is being planned for next year, he said.

Stantec, a Canadian-based engineering firm working on flood-reduction plans, is preparing a “benching” project along the river through downtown Findlay which will cut away some of the river bank, widening the river and reducing flooding in the area by 1 foot during a 100-year flood.

There have been no additional flood-reduction plans approved. Floodwater detention areas have been discussed, but have not been approved by the Maumee Watershed Conservancy District court. The conservancy district is overseeing the flood-reduction effort.

Future flood-reduction efforts could include raising some roadways; continuing to purchase flood-prone properties; continuing river maintenance; and development of a green space plan for vacant properties.

The commissioners stressed Friday that with the voter-approved sales tax increase, the county’s sales tax rate would still be lower than 53 of 88 counties statewide.

They pointed out that many Hancock County residents travel to Toledo or Columbus to shop. Lucas County, which includes Toledo, collects 7.25 percent sales tax, with 1.5 percent for county operations. Franklin County, which includes Columbus, collects 7.5 percent sales tax, with 1.75 percent for operations.

Commissioner Bechtol on Friday had a bright set of blocks arranged in a rectangle. Four green blocks represented the existing 1 percent county sales tax, one green block represented the new 0.25 percent sales tax being requested, and 23 yellow blocks represented the 5.75 percent sales tax retained by the state.

Maurer: 419-427-8420
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