GREENFIELD — Early estimates suggest building a new county jail would hike property taxes by up to $100 annually for a $100,000 home.
More than 30 residents and county officials packed a board room Tuesday to weigh in on the proposed criminal justice complex project, which includes construction of a new jail.
The Hancock County Board of Commissioners invited residents to learn more about the project, estimated to cost $55 million, and weigh in, saying taxpayers ultimately will foot the bill, so their voices should be heard.
The Hancock County Jail has been overcrowded for years, and in recent months, county officials have debated whether to build a new facility and how to pay for it.
Tuesday, the jail housed 192 inmates, 35 more than it’s designed to hold, said deputy jail commander Keith Oliver. That’s not counting another 38 inmates being held at a facility in LaGrange County that has agreed to help alleviate Hancock County’s space crunch.
A new facility would increase the inmate capacity to 438 and trigger a system-wide transition of staff and inmates alike to county offices that would be repurposed to make better use of available space.
The county commissioners say they need to borrow the funding to make the project a reality, and taxes would have to be raised to pay back the loan. That requires support from residents.
“Our goal is to get buy-in from everyone,” said commissioner Brad Armstrong.
A common theme emerged among the residents and county officials who spoke Tuesday: The project seems necessary.
George Langston of Greenfield said he’s concerned about the safety of the jailers working in an overcrowded facility. But he wonders whether state lawmakers should take up the issue as county jails across the state experience overcrowding following a change in state law requiring low-level offenders to serve time in county facilities rather than state prisons.
He also worries about the impact an increase in property or income taxes would have on people living on fixed incomes, he said.
While residents will no doubt be impacted by the increase, it’s an affordable hike considering the size of the project, Armstrong said.
County officials involved in the criminal justice system also spoke Tuesday, saying the project is necessary for efficiency.
Hancock County Coroner David Stillinger spoke briefly about the challenges facing his department. The coroner and his deputies have no office. The department stores documents at the current jail, but Stillinger runs his department from his business or home, he said.
Plans for the criminal justice complex include space for the coroner. An office equipped with an autopsy suite would help make the department more efficient, Stillinger said.
Deputy prosecutor Marie Castetter said the overcrowded jail is a factor she has to consider when recommending sentences for offenders who have pleaded guilty to their crimes.
She hears often about the conditions of the facility — blocks are so overcrowded, inmates are sleeping on plastic cots on the floor — and weighs whether it’s necessary to send someone convicted of a non-violent crime to serve their sentence there, knowing the facility is already cramped, she said.
Tuesday’s meeting was the first of a few the commissioners plan to host in coming months as the project moves ahead.
Other meetings will likely be in the evening to give residents with day jobs a chance to learn about the project and weigh in, Armstrong said.
The next meeting has not been scheduled.