Tax hike considered for jail, court issues

By JIM MAURER
STAFF WRITER

The Hancock County commissioners indicated they are considering a sales tax for “safety and security” to assist the sheriff’s office with prisoner housing after a 20-minute discussion Tuesday with Sheriff Michael Heldman.

Heldman had requested funds last week to house prisoners in area county jails. The county has spent nearly $400,000 on housing prisoners this year because of overcrowding in the Hancock County Justice Center. Funds appropriated this year for that purpose are expected to run out this month.

The commissioners can either impose a sales tax or place an issue on the ballot for voters. A ballot issue would require two public hearings and approval of legislation to submit to the county elections board. The deadline for November general election is Aug. 8, which is too soon to have the public hearings and submit the issue for that ballot, said county Assistant Prosecutor Cindy Land.

No decisions have been made on issues such as whether to impose a sales tax hike or the length of any increase, the commissioners said.

A 0.25 percent sales tax, approved by county voters in 2009 to fund flood reduction efforts, will expire Dec. 31. The tax generates about $3 million to $3.5 million annually.

On Tuesday, there were 120 inmates in sheriff’s custody. The county jail has 103 prisoners, and the remainder are being housed in Putnam County, 11; Wood County, 3; and Van Wert County, 3. Hancock County pays a daily fee to each of those counties for prisoner housing. The county also has the additional cost of transporting those prisoners.

The commissioners approved an additional $100,000 appropriation Tuesday from the state’s Targeted Community Alternatives to Prison program, aimed at reducing the number of prisoners in state lockups and assisting counties with probation and prisoner housing costs.

Commissioner Mark Gazarek suggested the sheriff’s office utilize some of those funds for August and September.

Gazarek said other departments have requested money “but we don’t have the funds.”

He said for five years, he mentioned sales tax revenues would decline as internet commerce continues to expand. Also, in preparing the 2019 budget, he wants to prioritize funds for employee raises to keep good workers.

Commissioner Tim Bechtol, reading a three-page statement, outlined short-term and long-term proposals, including a sales tax hike to deal with safety and security issues such as prisoner housing costs.

Bechtol said an additional $250,000 for prisoner housing would be necessary for the remainder of the year.

“I have not found $250,000 in our county budget just waiting to be used for this purpose,” he said. “If we had an extra $250,000, we wouldn’t have had to borrow as much money as we are ($1.5 million) to renovate the justice center here in the next few months.”

In the short-term, Bechtol said the county judges and prosecutor must be told “we simply cannot exceed the number of beds available within the justice center for the remainder of 2018,” he said. “We can no longer fund the extra resource of housing inmates in other counties for the rest of this budget cycle.”

“It is my understanding that delayed sentencing has been used in this county in the past,” he said about waiting until space is available to have some prisoners serve jail time.

Bechtol would like to have a mid-year budget review with county departments that receive general fund money to discuss where each department may be under budget for the remainder of this year.

“This is not a money grab to strip any of our general fund entities of the funds already budgeted to them for this budget cycle,” he said. “We are all on the same team here. It’s called Hancock County.”

In the long-term, he proposed replacing the expiring quarter percent sales tax with a 0.2 percent sales tax. He wants the funds designated “specifically” for safety and security measures for justice center and court buildings improvements, including new construction and renovations. Also, the funds could be used for increased staffing to operate the jail.

Even with the 0.2 percent sales tax, Hancock County will have the fourth lowest tax rate of the 88 counties statewide, behind Butler, Wayne and Stark.

“As long as we continue to budget as we have been for capital improvements, primarily based on what is left over at the end of the previous budget cycle, we are never going to get beyond having just enough funds to pay our most critical bills,” he said. “And we will soon not even be able to cover those expenses at the current rate of annual increases to our county expense line items.”

Also, there is no “conclusive financial plan” to fund a probate/juvenile court building; no funds to help Hancock Public Health “find or build an adequate facility;” an inability to fund various county programs, agencies and departments; and no funds to assist villages, such as Arlington, to rebuild its Main Street.

“Our continuation of a very modest sales tax is our very best option to more properly fund our much-needed county expenses because of the attraction this area has for regional tourism, commercial trade, and employment, all coming in from outside our county,” he said.

As a fiscal conservative, Bechtol said he did not want county programs to be unfunded, county department staffs to be “depleted” as they take jobs elsewhere, and county-owned buildings to be in disrepair “all in the name of saving some 25 cents for every $100 spent,” he said.

“We can do better than this, and we don’t have to break the bank to do it,” Bechtol said.

Robertson said he concurred with the other commissioners. In discussions with the judges and prosecutor, 240 beds will be necessary to handle the jail population in the future, he was told. Also, if non-mandated areas are “defunded,” those departments would not be eligible to receive matching funds from the state or federal government, the commissioners have been told by county Auditor Charity Rauschenberg.

He said continuing a sales tax would be “tax neutral” under Bechtol’s proposal as there would not be a tax increase.

The “quality of life” in Findlay and throughout Hancock County is being challenged, he said, from a safety standpoint with the increased crime.

The commissioners will continue discussions and realize they will have to make “tough decisions,” he said.

Heldman said with no additional funding from the county, the sheriff’s office personnel “will have to meet with the county judges, bring everybody back into one spot, work from there and hope for the best.”

Maurer: 419-427-8420
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