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Jail tax headed to ballot

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A sales tax increase to pay for a new, larger county jail is headed to the March 2020 primary ballot.

The Greene County Commissioners at their Dec. 3 meeting unanimously passed a resolution to put the 0.25% sales tax rise before voters this March. The increase would raise about $7 million per year for a term of up to 12 years to pay for the construction of a new county jail.

In the next step, the Greene County Board of Elections will review and potentially certify the issue for the ballot.

The new jail is estimated to cost $70 million, including interest on the construction bond. It would replace and consolidate the county’s downtown Xenia jail, built in 1969, and the Adult Detention Center, or ADC, a second jail also located in Xenia and built in 2000.

Also included in the project is a new sheriff’s office, to be located in the jail complex, and a renovation of the ADC building. County officials have said they intend to turn over the renovated ADC to a third-party provider of drug treatment and rehabilitation services.

The new jail would be the most expensive construction project by far that Greene County has undertaken in recent years. By contrast, the ADC cost about $6 million to build in 2000, according to County Administrator Brandon Huddleson. The planned jail is a more complex project and is being undertaken 20 years later, he noted.

The new facility would be located on Greene Way Boulevard in Xenia, near the ADC.

While all three commissioners voted to pass the sales tax resolution, Commissioner Tom Koogler expressed reservations about the size of the new jail.

“I strongly believe that we need a new jail. … Having said that, I’m not totally convinced that we need one as big as [is proposed],” he said.

Koogler cited new technology and new legislation as factors that change the county’s jail needs in the future.

“I believe we would be better served to have a jail we could add onto, versus building it all at one time,” he said.

The planned jail would increase the number of inmate beds from 382 to 500 — a 30% expansion of jail capacity.

In public hearings last month on the issue, the majority of citizens who testified spoke out against increasing the size of the county jail. Of concern is the potential for jailing more people in the county because more beds are available, according to several who spoke.

“I will not vote for a levy or tax that will allow us to put more people in jail,” Yellow Springs’ Jessica Thomas stated.

But at the Dec. 3 meeting, the county’s two other commissioners disagreed, saying that the planned jail was not too large.

“The size we’ve chosen, which was one of the consultant’s choices, is the appropriate size,” Commissioner Dick Gould stated, referring to the consulting firm hired by the county to conduct a jail needs assessment last year.

Commissioner Bob Glaser voiced his view that the new facility needed to accommodate future growth in Greene County and, potentially, its jail population.

“The sheriff has done a real good job anticipating growth,” he said.

The new jail would “hopefully” last for 20 years, he added.

And Glaser pointed out that a larger jail would allow Greene County to “immediately” house inmates from other counties short on jail space. Doing so would offset the costs of operating the new jail, he said.

“We can charge other counties for that space. So there’s an offset here immediately in terms of overhead and we have that opportunity,” Glaser said.

Previously asked by the News about the potential for housing inmates from other counties in a new, larger jail, Greene County Sheriff Gene Fischer said the issue had come up, but hadn’t been evaluated.

“I was approached by an agency asking to house inmates in a facility if we build one. At this time, we have not discussed this and the pros and cons of this would have to be evaluated,” he wrote in a Nov. 12 email.

Doing so would garner Greene County about $70 per inmate per day, he estimated.
County officials have previously said that the size of the new jail largely reflects the sheriff’s preference for a 500-bed facility over other options — several of which are smaller — developed by the county’s consultants, architectural firm HDR.

The consultants’ final report, from May 2019, recommends the 500-bed option, but only in conjunction with expanding the planning horizon from 2035 to 2050. The other options presented in the final report assume a 15-year, not a 30-year, time frame.

Reached for further comment this week, Koogler said the long time frame concerned him.

“One thing’s for certain: things are going to change,” he said. “My concern is that we’re building a jail based on the same thought process. We need to be more creative.”

Elaborating on his public comments from Dec. 3, he said that bond reform and house arrest in lieu of incarceration were two trends that could potentially reduce the need for jail space in the future.

Koogler added that the conversion of the ADC into a drug rehab facility also has the potential to lower incarceration in the county.

“It seems like we’re talking out of both sides of our mouth,” he said, referring to the simultaneous construction of a larger jail and developing a new rehab center.
In view of these factors, building a substantially bigger jail could be risky, Koogler added.

“How do you know it’s the right thing?” he asked.

But he also stressed that the jail was “the sheriff’s project,” and the commissioners’ job was to “find the money to pay for it.” And deciding whether to make this money available was the voters’ job, he added.

“We have an obligation to put it on the ballot and allow the voters [to decide],” Koogler stated at the Dec. 3 meeting.

Discussion of the issue after the commissioners’ vote lasted about four minutes. The vote followed two public hearings, a jail needs assessment conducted last year and at least two years of intermittent public discussion of the issue by commissioners, as well as planning and research by the sheriff’s department.

Closing the Dec. 3 discussion, Koogler stressed the importance of the jail project.

“It’s a big step in Greene County’s future,” he said.


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