GREENFIELD – Hancock County residents might get a chance to decide whether a new jail gets built and how it’s funded.
The Hancock County Board of Commissioners has asked the county council to send the proposal to voters.
The commissioners want to conduct a referendum in May to ask residents whether they support borrowing for the project, estimated to cost up to $55 million when soft costs, such as engineering and design work, are included in the price tag.
For months, local officials have debated how to handle overcrowding at the local facility, which housed 181 inmates this week, 24 more than it was designed to hold. Earlier this year, a study found the best solution is building a new, bigger facility.
Financing the project was the focus of a 40-minute debate during a county council meeting this week. County officials plan to discuss the topic again at the next county council meeting, Nov. 8.
The commissioners have argued the only solution to accommodate the growing inmate population is to build a new jail, while some council members have said there might be other less-costly options, including expanding the community corrections facility reserved for low-level offenders.
To build a new jail, the county will have to borrow the funding, and the commissioners say there are three options for paying back that money.
County officials can hike the local income tax — taken out of Hancock County workers’ wages — or increase property taxes. Or they can use a combination of the two methods.
Increasing the income tax requires approval from the state legislature, while increasing property taxes to pay the bond must get the OK from voters.
Commissioner John Jessup told council members this week county officials need to be in agreement about the project in order to build public support.
“The board of commissioners is just trying to give the council the largest number of tools to get the financing figured out,” he said.
He asked for support for the commissioners’ plan to conduct public hearings so they can move forward with putting the question on the ballot in May.
It’s too early to say how much the project could cost taxpayers, he added after having met with financial planners Friday morning.
Reaction from county council members was mixed, with a few saying they need more information before moving forward.
Martha Vail said she supports the project and believes a new jail needs to be built, but she wants more specific cost estimates before she agrees.
“To sell it to the public, you’re going to have to have the numbers,” she said.
Jim Shelby said he believes more meetings with members of the local criminal justice system should be held before the county brings voters into the conversation.
Jeannine Gray said she supports bringing voters into the discussion about the jail because they’ll ultimately pay for any changes. She wants to hear from the people she was elected to represent, she said.
She knows county officials can reach a consensus about the project, they just need to work together, she added.
The board is expected to take up the issue again next month, when members of the board of commissioners will bring cost estimates and other information pertinent to the project.
In the meantime, the commissioners will begin making plans for the public hearings the board is required to hold, Jessup said.
Weigh in on the jail project by contacting your local representatives.
Jeannine Gray, District 1
317-586-7362 or email@example.com
Randy Sorrell, District 2
James Shelby, District 3
317-462-6415 or firstname.lastname@example.org
William Bolander, District 4
Kent Fisk, at-large
Debbie Bledsoe, at-large
317-361-0126 or email@example.com
Martha Vail, at-large
317-502-6997 or firstname.lastname@example.org
The Hancock County Council meets at 8:30 a.m. the second Wednesday of the month at the Hancock County Courthouse Annex, 111 American Legion Place, Greenfield.