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Tax hike for new jail?

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Should a 0.25% increase in county sales tax be put on the ballot to fund the construction of a new jail for Greene County?

County residents will have a chance to weigh in on the issue at two upcoming public hearings. The hearings are scheduled for Thursday, Nov. 7, at 1:30 p.m., and Thursday, Nov. 14, at 6:30 p.m. Both hearings will take place in the Greene County Commissioners’ meeting chambers at 35 Greene St. in Xenia.

The hearings are opportunities for local residents to learn more about the proposed sales tax increase and the county’s plans for a new jail. Public input will help Greene County Commissioners decide whether to go ahead with putting a sales tax measure on the March 17, 2020, primary ballot, according to Greene County Administrator Brandon Huddleson this week.

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“The purpose of the meetings is to gauge public desire to have the measure considered,” he said.

By law, the commissioners must hold two public hearings before passing resolutions pertaining to the measure. The deadline for putting issues on the March 2020 ballot is Dec. 18, 2019.

Those unable to attend the hearings may email comments to Lisa Mock, clerk of Greene County Board of Commissioners, at Written comments will become part of the public record.

Plans for new, larger jail

Greene County officials seek to build a new, larger county jail to replace and combine the existing downtown jail and Adult Detention Center, or ADC, both located in Xenia. The new facility would also house the county sheriff’s offices. The proposed location for the complex is Greene Way Boulevard in Xenia, between the ADC, which would no longer be used as a jail, and Greene County Environmental Services.

The total cost of the new facility is estimated at $70 million, according to Huddleson this week. That figure includes construction costs, bond interest and other factors.

The county does not yet have a design for the new facility, as that step comes after putting the sales tax on the ballot. However, according to Greene County Sheriff Gene Fischer this week, new jails in Fairfield and Warren counties are models for Greene County.

“My staff has been looking for a long time at designs for a new building,” he said.

Warren County is the closest model, he added. Warren County officials broke ground in August on a $56 million, 496-bed new jail funded in part by a 0.25% county sales tax increase.

Plans for a new jail in Greene County come after several years of discussion, and a jail needs assessment conducted by an outside consulting firm the county hired in 2018. The consultants recommended that Greene County build a new jail.

According to Sheriff Fischer in previous interviews with the News, a new county jail is needed to address infrastructure issues and overcrowding in the old facility, as well as provide space for inmate programming and other services.

Greene County Jail has been under a federal consent decree since 1989 for overcrowding.

The proposed new jail would be 30% larger than the combined existing facilities, increasing the total number of beds from 382 to 500.

While the county’s consultants concluded that a new, larger jail was needed, they also cautioned against jailing more people to fill the new beds.

“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 consultants’ May 2019 final report states.

Funding specifics

County officials seek to pay for the new jail with a 0.25% increase in the county sales tax rate. The increase would raise an estimated $7 million per year over 10 years, according to Huddleson. Ten years is the anticipated term of the construction bonds.

Voters would have to approve that increase. County officials aim to put the increase on the March 17, 2020, primary ballot.

The proposed ballot language for the sales tax increase would not specify a time period. Instead, the ballot would stipulate that the increase remain in place until the bonds are paid off, Huddleson said.

The current sales tax rate in Greene County is 6.75%, which includes a state sales tax of 5.75% and a county sales tax of 1%. The new tax would increase the county sales tax to 1.25%.

Revenues from the proposed increase would be earmarked for the construction of a new jail, as required under a new section of the Ohio Revised Code, or ORC, pertaining to county jail construction and administration.

By law, counties in Ohio can levy a maximum county sales tax rate of 1.5%. But the new section of the ORC allows for separate increases of up to 0.5% specific to jail construction and administration outside of that 1.5% county sales tax maximum, Huddleson explained.

The sales tax increase is a way to raise revenue from those who shop in Greene County, but don’t necessarily live here, thereby reducing the load on local property owners, county officials have said. While the chunk of sales tax revenue attributable to non-residents is unknown, it likely represents “a large portion,” according to Huddleson.

Residents of other counties make up 44% of jail inmates in Greene County, according to the May 2019 report by the county’s jail consultants.

Next steps

After the two public hearings, commissioners will decide whether to put the sales tax increase on the March 2020 ballot. If they do, the sheriff’s office will be responsible for public outreach regarding the jail plan, according to Huddleson.

“The onus is on the sheriff to go out and have public engagement and sell the plan,” he said.

And if voters pass the sales tax increase, Greene County will proceed with building a new, larger county jail. That process could take roughly three years from ballot approval, Huddleson said.



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