The Hancock County commissioners made the right call this week on an issue voters were not willing to support last November: a funding plan that will finance major repairs and overdue maintenance on the now 28-year-old county jail.
The commissioners’ decision to take out a sizable loan for $1.26 million in jail needs was bold step, but a necessary one.
Voters, for a variety of reasons, rejected a sales tax request in November by nearly a 3-to-1 margin. Had it passed, the revenue would have paid for the jail fixes, a future expansion of the jail, and construction of a new county office building.
The tax package lacked a business and ag buy-in and was a lot for most people to digest. It would have kept a quarter-percent sales tax hike in effect for 20 years. That was too big of a bite for most.
But the resounding defeat really didn’t change anything. The needed jail upgrades remain and putting them off even longer would only make matters worse and likely add to the bill.
No one can blame the commissioners for being gun-shy about trying another sales tax request this year. Instead, short-term notes in the amount of $1.5 million will be sold in order to issue long-term bonds to finance the project.
A laundry list of jail repairs and upgrades await. The biggest projects are replacing and painting the sliding security doors in cell blocks and the main door to the jail ($1-plus million); replacing a boiler ($60,000); repairs and repainting the roof ($67,600); and replacing faucets in cells ($37,000).
The commissioners had little choice but to move ahead. Officials must do certain things, like paint cell block areas, to meet state jail standards and pass health department inspections.
But while the maintenance needs are being addressed, a tougher call awaits for commissioners and taxpayers. How will the county afford the other jail project that many seem to want — a bigger jail — but don’t want to pay for?
Just like the upgrades, the need for more jail beds didn’t disappear in November. Wednesday’s jail population stood at 130 in a jail designed for 98. That means the overflow, about 30 inmates, must be housed in Putnam and Van Wert counties.
At $65 per inmate per day, plus transportation costs, the tab for outside housing will quickly add up, and could easily exceed last year’s bill of about $200,000.
The expansion question remains. Soon, the commissioners and voters must decide if they’ll invest in law and order and public safety — or if they’ll just continue kicking the can down the road.