One way or the other, Commissioners Mark Gazarek, Brian Robertson and Tim Bechtol will have to find a way to pay the growing bill for housing prisoners outside of Hancock County.
About $386,000 has already been spent this year alone to transport and house prisoners in neighboring jails, and there is just $14,000 remaining for the rest of the year.
Becky Smith, the sheriff’s fiscal officer, said at the current pace, the outside housing fund will be exhausted by mid-August. That means at least another $200,000 could be needed by January.
While the long-term solution would be to expand the jail, that will take time and more community buy-in. Voters said no to a sales tax increase in November that would have allowed for the expansion of the jail, jail maintenance and a new county office building.
Barring the discovery of unencumbered county funds, commissioners may have little choice but to impose a sales tax to pay the jail bill. State law allows commissioners to implement sales tax in increments of tenths of a percent, so an increase could be as little as 0.1 percent, although more could be needed.
Judges and prosecutors have been working with the sheriff’s office to find ways to reduce the daily jail population, but short of a decrease in crime, there is only so much that can be done without impacting community safety. Sheriff Mike Heldman has little choice but to find beds for those who arrive at the jail upon order of the courts.
The Justice Center, the only jail in the county, opened in 1989, and is designed to hold 98. When the number tops 108, the overflow inmates are shipped off to other jails.
More days than not the jail is operating at full capacity. On Wednesday, Hancock County’s 121 prisoners were also being held at jails in Putnam, Wood and Van Wert counties. At other times this year, jails in Mercer and Paulding counties were helping house our criminals.
While a sales tax increase may not be popular, it may be unavoidable. The commissioners are already being pulled in several directions due to additional funding needs.
Job and Family Services needs more money for rising foster care costs related to the county’s opioid problem. That’s likely to be a long-term need, too. Then there’s the pending issue of future flood control funding since the current 0.25 percent sales tax expires at year’s end.
The outside prisoner housing bills will continue until the commissioners figure out a way to finance a jail expansion. Until then, they must bite the bullet and come up with a short-term solution to the long-term problem.