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‘Building a jail larger than we need’— Citizens give input at jail tax hearing

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Does Greene County need a bigger jail? And what would be the costs of operating a larger facility?

Those were the chief questions and concerns voiced by citizens at last Thursday’s public hearing on a proposed sales tax increase to pay for a new county jail, estimated at a total cost of $70 million. Five people spoke at the sparsely attended mid-day hearing in Xenia, held in the Greene County Commissioners’ chambers. A second hearing will be held Thursday, Nov. 14, at 6:30 p.m., also in the commissioners’ chambers at 35 Greene St., Xenia.

Those not able to attend may submit written comments by email to Clerk Lisa Mock at lmock@co.greene.oh.us.

The first citizen to speak at last Thursday’s hearing was Bellbrook resident Wendy Dyer, who has been following the issue for more than two years.

“I’m concerned that we’re building a jail larger than we need,” she stated.

Dyer said she agrees that the existing downtown jail, one of two county detention facilities, needs to be replaced. But she stated that she would prefer the county build a modestly larger facility, with room to expand if needed.

In a follow-up interview with the News, Dyer explained she was worried that the proposed new jail, which would expand inmate bed capacity from 382 to 500, will result in more people being locked up in Greene County.

“If you build it, they will fill it,” Dyer said.

The increase in beds goes against county officials’ stated desire to find alternatives to incarceration, she added.

“The one thing everybody seems to agree on is that we need to lower the jail population,” Dyer said.

Yellow Springs resident and Village Council candidate Laura Curliss, an attorney, stated at the public hearing that she favors replacing the downtown jail. Curliss cited the lack of suitably private attorney-client meeting spaces.

“It’s unconstitutional the way it is now,” she contended.

But like Dyer, Curliss expressed concern about the scope of the new jail plan. And she questioned whether Greene County was making full use of alternatives to jail, such as electronic monitoring.

A third county resident, Dennis Crouch of Beavercreek, said he supported the jail project, but worried that operating costs would increase. He urged the county to conduct a study of operating costs before building a larger jail facility.

Also offering public comment were Xenia Police Captain Steve Lane, representing the Greene County Law Enforcement Association and speaking in favor of the project, and this reporter, citing the caution from the authors of the county’s jail needs assessment report.

“Of concern is, if the county builds a new jail will stakeholders be less vigilant in managing the jail population. This has been seen in other counties after jails with larger capacity are built,” the May 2019 final report states.

County officials’ statements

In response to citizen concerns, Greene County Sheriff Gene Fischer said the county did not envision filling the larger facility.

The plan calls for “500 beds but not 500 inmates,” he stated.

In his opening statement at the hearing, Fischer cited the need for more space as a major reason for building the new jail. He read from a previous statement to the Greene County Commissioners, as well as from portions of a May 2019 report prepared by outside consultants that recommends building a new jail.

Space limitations, functional issues and the age of the downtown jail mean the existing facilities “need to be abandoned,” Fischer stated.

The Greene County Sheriff’s Department currently operates two adult detention facilities: the downtown Xenia jail and the Adult Detention Center, or ADC. The current total capacity is 382 inmates, though the average daily population is around 320 inmates, jail officials have previously stated.

Last year, around 4,500 inmates were held by the county at one of its jail facilities.

The new jail would replace and combine the two existing facilities, with a 30% increase in beds. A new sheriff’s office would also be part of the plan.

The downtown jail has been under a federal consent decree for overcrowding since 1989. Inmates are regularly released early to meet the capacity limit set by the decree, Fischer said at the hearing. He also cited a large number of outstanding warrants, many of them for failure to appear in court, that area law enforcement agencies are unable to serve because of crowding at the downtown jail.

Also at last Thursday’s hearing, Fischer specified that the increase in jail beds is needed to separately house different groups or “classifications” of inmates; provide more space for in-jail programs; and allow for greater flexibility in cleaning and maintaining the facility.

Fischer also referenced the antiquated and dilapidated nature of the downtown facility, constructed in 1969.

“This would take care of the problem of being an embarrassment,” he said of the new plan.
Regarding the cost of operating a new facility, Fischer said he didn’t anticipate an increase from the current operating budget.

“We anticipate that there will not be a need for increased staffing” because of the new facility’s design, he said.

“We’re hoping to maybe even save some money,” he added.

Figures provided to county commissioners at the hearing show that the county expects to spend $8.9 million from the general fund to operate and maintain county detention facilities this year. That amount represents about 15% of the 2019 county budget of $58.9 million.

The county previously spent $8.3 million in 2018 and $8 million in 2017 to operate and maintain the county’s detention facilities. Expenditures for all criminal and administrative justice services in the county totaled $24.4 million in 2018, and $23.6 million in 2017.

Summing up his position at the hearing, Fischer stated, “There is a need for this facility. The question is how we pay for it. I fully encourage a ballot initiative.”

All three county commissioners were in attendance at the hearing, and stated their support for the jail project.

Commissioner Bob Glaser acknowledged that the board had been wrestling with the issue for years.

“I hope the public realizes the need for this facility,” he said.

Cost had previously been a deterrent in moving ahead with a plan, he acknowledged.

“At some point in time we have to belly up to the bar” and pay for it, Glaser added.

Sales tax increase

Last Thursday’s hearing was the first of two public hearings required by law prior to commissioners deciding whether or not to put a sales tax increase on the March 17, 2020, ballot.

The sales tax measure would increase county sales tax by 0.25%. Combined state and local sales tax in Greene County is currently 6.75%. The increase would raise sales tax to 7% for up to 12 years, the period of the construction bond.

County officials expect the sales tax increase to raise $7 million in revenue per year over that period. The increase comes under a new provision of the Ohio Revised Code for jail construction, and could not be used for other purposes. The tax would be retired after the bond was paid off, likely in less than 12 years, county officials have said.

Commissioners and the sheriff touted the sales tax measure as an alternative to a property tax increase.

According to Sheriff Fischer at the hearing, a 1.65-mill property tax levy would be required to raise $7 million per year.

Based on calculations provided by the county auditor, such a levy would increase property taxes by $57.75 per $100,000 of appraised home value, Fischer said.

“It’s time for this to not burden property owners,” he stated.

About 45% of those booked into the county jails so far this year have been from outside Greene County, according to Fischer at the hearing. The county sales tax increase allows the cost of building a new jail to be spread to those visiting from other counties, he explained.

Other local concerns

In advance of last Thursday’s hearing, jail administrator Major Kirk Keller addressed Yellow Springs Village Council at its Monday, Nov. 4, meeting. His presentation anticipated many of the themes of the hearing.

Keller emphasized that a new, larger jail was needed to house different groups of inmates and provide more space for programs, rather than increase the total number of people in jail.

“We don’t fill the beds we have, and building this facility will not fill the beds,” he told Council.

“Why not do something like 350 beds and more space that’s conducive to programming like Story Chain?” Council President Brian Housh asked, referring to a locally run literacy program for inmates and their families.

Keller responded that the planning horizon for the jail was several decades out. The consultants’ final report recommends a 500-bed jail to serve the county’s needs until 2050.

He also emphasized the need to separate groups of inmates.

“I have predators in with folks that may just be there for a couple of days,” he said.

In another question, Council Vice President Marianne MacQueen asked Keller about additional services the county planned to provide at the new jail, and whether existing staffing levels would be adequate.

Keller replied that the new jail would be designed in smaller units with classrooms where outside groups could come in to provide programming. No additional jail staff would be needed, according to Keller.

“We could do so much more,” he said of the new facility.

Story Chain’s founder Jonathan Platt was in the audience and spoke in favor of the new jail.

“I think getting a new jail is a great idea because it would give more room to my program,” he said.

Village resident and Council candidate Laura Curliss from the audience asked Keller what percentage of people in the county jail were being held due to minor crimes related to drug addiction, or because they weren’t able to post bond.

Keller contended that Greene County’s criminal justice system was “ahead of the curve” on both drug treatment and bond reform, though he didn’t specify how those issues impacted current jail inmates.

National statistics show that about two-thirds of inmates in county jails have drug or alcohol dependency.

And that’s a factor that deeply concerns Bellbrook resident Wendy Dyer.

At last Thursday’s hearing, she expressed concern that the county was using the larger of two jail projections. The larger number worried her, she said, because the 10-year period, 2007 to 2017, used to extrapolate the future county jail population represented some of the worst years of the opioid crisis.

The May 2019 final report notes a “sharp” increase of 18% in the Greene County jail population between 2013 to 2017; statistics suggest that opioid use peaked in Ohio in 2017.

The county’s current incarceration rate “is higher than historical because of the opioid crisis,” Dyer stated at the hearing.

In follow-up comments to the News, Dyer said she believed the scope of the jail plan didn’t take into account the potential success of efforts to treat mental health and addiction issues in the county.

“It’s like they’re saying [the opioid crisis] is not going to get better,” she said.

Dyer also worried that with more county resources tied up in a new jail building, fewer would be available for mental health and addiction services in and out of jail.

“If you need mental health services in this county, you shouldn’t have to go to jail,” she said.

The county has put some money toward drug treatment as part of the new plan. About $4 million of the $70 million total project cost will go toward remodeling the existing ADC “to customize the building for one or more third-party providers to provide treatment services,” according to County Administrator Brandon Huddleson in an email to the News this week.

That sounds good to Curliss, but she maintained this week that the county should build a new jail on a more modest scale, with a countywide emphasis on alternatives to detention.

“I don’t know how you move toward lesser incarceration. A bigger jail is just going to fill out,” she said.

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