By DENISE GRANT
A forum hosted by the newly reformed League of Women Voters on the “safety and security” sales tax increase being sought by the Hancock County commissioners attracted a small crowd with some tough questions Thursday.
About 15 people attended the forum in the Findlay Municipal Building.
The Hancock County commissioners have placed a 20-year, quarter-percent sales tax increase for capital improvements on the November ballot. The bulk of the new tax revenue would be used to pay for construction of a jail expansion and a county government building. The tax would generate about $3.5 million a year.
Speaking at Thursday’s forum were Commissioner Brian Robertson, Sheriff Michael Heldman, and Common Pleas Court Judges Reginald Routson and Jonathan Starn.
Routson said the pressure on the Hancock County jail’s capacity is much greater now than it was in 1989, when the jail was built.
Officials say the jail is now constantly operating beyond its capacity of 98 beds. In 2016, it cost Hancock County about $400,000 to house prisoners in other counties, not counting added expenses like travel.
Officials said Thursday the overcrowding creates problems with both the operation of the jail and the courts. Hancock County currently has a list of about 2,500 outstanding warrants, but doesn’t actively pursue them because there is no jail space and limited manpower, Heldman said.
A jail addition, with a capacity of about 150 beds, could cost between $12 million and $15 million.
“I don’t know that we can trust you to build a new one,” said one woman, questioning why the county is outgrowing a structure that is just 28 years old.
Routson said there was no way to anticipate the opiate epidemic, which is driving up the jail’s population.
Changes in Ohio law, designed to cut the state’s prison population, are also putting more pressure on county jails. Ohio has a prison population of about 53,000, well beyond the capacity of the state’s prison facilities, which is about 38,000, Routson said.
“I think we can do a better job locally, but that requires a local investment,” Routson said.
Audience members also questioned what will be done with the building now housing the Hancock County Probate and Juvenile Court at 308 Dorney Plaza, if that court moves to the new government building.
The current court building, a 152-year-old former church, could cost nearly $1.2 million to renovate.
“And we’d still end up with a confined area, no matter how much paint and gingerbread we put on it,” Robertson said. “Or, we could use that money as part of a down payment” on a new building.
Robertson said the community would have to discuss what to do with the old church.
Nancy Stephani, who attended Thursday’s forum, suggested a drug treatment center be housed in the church. Stephani is chairwoman of the Hancock County Democratic Party and coordinator of emergency services at Century Health.
Robertson also said the outside of the Hancock County Courthouse needs to be repaired and resealed, and the inside of the current jail needs updates.
The work will collectively cost millions.
“We need to do proper maintenance. If we don’t do the maintenance, the conditions will get worse,” he said.
Robertson said by 2024 it could take a half-percent sales tax increase to pay for it all.
The League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan organization, began reforming locally this fall. The group takes stands on issues, and holds candidate debates in an attempt to encourage dialogue among people with differing political views.