GREENFIELD — It’s up to voters whether county leaders can borrow $55 million to finance construction of a new jail and the renovation of other criminal justice system facilities.
The Daily Reporter has planned a series of stories that examines the many angles of the project ahead of the primary election on May 8.
Today’s story answers some of the initial questions voters might have on the upcoming referendum.
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What is a referendum?
A referendum is a public question placed on a ballot by a local government, often to finance construction of big projects. The question will include a brief description of the project, the estimated project cost and the tax rate increase required to fund it. The question will ask voters whether they support an increase in the property tax rate to finance the project.
What does Hancock County’s question say?
The question will read: “Shall Hancock County issue bonds or enter into a lease to finance the 2018 Safety and Security Project, which includes the construction, renovation and expansion of county Criminal Justice Center Complex facilities and the repair of the courthouse roof, which is estimated to cost not more than $55 million and is estimated to increase the property tax rate for debt service by a maximum of $0.1436 per $100 of assessed valuation?”
What does that $55 million include?
Construction of a new jail and the renovation of several other criminal justice facilities is expected to cost $35 million. Another $20 million will be set aside for soft costs associated with a project of this size, including financing, design and engineering costs.
Beside a new criminal justice facility, the project also includes funding to repair the roof on the Hancock County Courthouse, which is desperately in need of repair, officials said. The county commissioners say $55 million is the most the project will cost, and they hope the work is less expensive.
Do we need a new jail?
Hancock County’s jail is overcrowded. Daily, the jail holds more inmates than the 157 it was built to house; on Friday, it held 195. In some blocks, inmates sleep on plastic cots on the floor because there aren’t enough beds. The current facility was built in the 1980s and lacks space jail leaders say they need to create mental health and recovery programs.
What do the project’s proponents say?
Supporters say building a new facility is the only solution to solving the overcrowding issue. A study found the jail’s population will surge to more than 400 in the next 20 years. The only viable permanent solution is to construct a new facility, which will allow county leaders to renovate other criminal justice buildings to create more space for each of them, officials say.
What about opponents?
Those against the project say a new facility as planned is costly and have argued there could be other solutions to consider. They’ve argued the jail doesn’t need to be expanded; rather, community corrections and work release programs need to grow. Treatment needs to be a priority rather than locking people up, they’ve said.
What would the jail look like?
Preliminary plans call for the new facility to be built east of the current jail at 123 E. Main St. and south of community corrections, next door. The new facility would be four stories tall including a basement. Each of the floors dedicated to housing inmates (three) would have two levels of cells to maximize space.
What else does the project include?
Besides building a new jail facility, the project includes the renovation and expansion of other criminal justice facilities. The prosecutor’s office would be moved to the courthouse, and the probation department, which is currently housed in the courthouse, would move to the existing community corrections facility, giving the department space to grow. Community corrections would then move to the current jail, also giving that department the space it needs to expand. Early plans also call for the creation of a fourth court, which would be housed in the new jail to cut down on the number of inmates being escorted to the courthouse for hearings.
How many votes will it take to move the project forward?
The county can move forward with borrowing the funding so long as a majority of voters cast a “yes” ballot.
If a majority votes in opposition of the question, the county will not be able to issue the bonds. The county can hold another referendum on the project 350 days after the election. County leaders can also consider other funding options, such as an increase in the local income tax.
Who pays if the referendum passes?
Property taxes that are approved by voters in a referendum are not subject to the state’s property tax caps. Therefore, any successful referendum would result in a property tax bill that might exceed the caps, and every property owner in the county would shoulder the increase. That increase would be about 14 cents on every $100 of assessed value, though the actual impact will be less because of property tax deductions, such as the homestead deduction, county leaders say.
For a $100,000 home, the increase would be about $45; a $150,000 home would see an increase of about $89. For a $200,000 home, the increase would be about $133.