Cover Story: The Politics of the Jail

What's behind the proposed tax hike?

Sean Hughes

Why Heimlich's plan has some fit to be tied.

proposed tax hike? For all the millions of words in newspapers and hours of over-heated remarks on talk radio about Hamilton County's jail overcrowding crisis, some common myths about the issue still persist among the public:

· Myth No. 1: Violent criminals are being released early, before their sentences are completed, and put back onto Cincinnati's streets because of a lack of available jail cells.

· Myth No. 2: A proposal to raise the county's sales tax by a quarter-cent for 20 years to build a $225 million jail amounts to a tax shift, instead of a tax hike, because it will be offset by a property tax rollback and planned reductions in property tax levies.

· Myth No. 3: Middle class property owners will get the most benefit from the rollback under the sales tax proposal.

In fact, despite the claims of various politicians, police and business leaders to the contrary, a closer look at data reveals none of those statements is accurate.

The rhetoric bandied back and forth over the issue, which is sure to increase before the November election, underscores the strong emotions tied to efforts for building a new county jail, which first was proposed in 1986. Those efforts never bore fruit, however, due to political concerns such as fear of raising taxes and deciding that construction of new Reds and Bengals stadiums were a higher priority.

Waiting on politicians to put forth a plan for adding more jail space, which falls under the jurisdiction of county commissioners, has exasperated Sheriff Simon Leis Jr.

"For the past 15 years, I have been somewhat of a frustrated sheriff," he says. "This crisis has been here since the early '90s."

Now, about those common assumptions ...

· Fact No. 1: Although some offenders are being released early, including 266 inmates last year alone, all are non-violent offenders, statistics show. No murderer, rapist or even anyone convicted of assault has been let go early due to a lack of space.

· Fact No. 2: The quarter-cent sales tax increase proposed by County Commission President Phil Heimlich is touted as a tax shift because the plan also cuts property taxes by $32.5 million annually during the course of the 20-year sales tax hike. In actuality, much of the savings come from ending the levy for the Drake Center treatment facility in 2010, with its operations being assumed by the Health Alliance, as well as reducing the amount of the levy that funds health care for the poor, beginning next year. Those actions already were planned before the latest jail proposal was created and will occur regardless of the sales tax.

· Fact No. 3: For most Hamilton County families, the added sales tax that they'd pay is greater than the rollback they'd receive from the property tax reduction. Using data from the non-partisan Tax Foundation on average taxable spending levels per household, nearly 75 percent of county property owners wouldn't receive any savings at all under the current sales tax proposal. The plan only begins producing savings for people who own property valued at least $200,000, and the amount grows significantly for people who own property valued at $1 million or more.

Tax break for the rich
Virtually every local official agrees Hamilton County needs more jail space, but some say Heimlich's plan was poorly cobbled together at the last minute and is fiscally irresponsible. Comparisons are being made to the 1996 half-cent sales tax increase that voters approved to build the Reds and Bengals stadiums.

That tax hike was supposed to be enough to cover the debt for building the stadiums over several decades and help pay for development between the stadiums. None of those promises were kept, as tax proceeds were below the overly rosy estimates given to the public. County commissioners may have to dip into their general fund to cover stadium debt in the future, and the area between the stadiums remains dusty parking lots.

Heimlich's jail plan, critics fear, would be a similar misstep borne of frustration.

"It's gimmicky, and it's a bait and switch," says County Commissioner Todd Portune. A Democrat, Portune opposes the sales tax proposal by his Republican colleague, Heimlich.

Heimlich's 20-year plan would raise about $650 million in sales tax revenues to build a $225 million jail, according to Portune. The extra money is needed to cover the extensive debt financing charges called for in the plan, as well as pay for the property tax rollback.

"The middle class ends up paying more taxes, but the rich of Hamilton County are the only ones who get a tax break," Portune says.

Despite the seeming inequity, Heimlich's proposal has garnered the tacit support of anti-tax crusaders such as State Rep. Tom Brinkman (R-Mount Lookout) and the group he once led, the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST).

While COAST quickly points out that it never endorses any tax hike put on the ballot, it has vowed not to actively oppose Heimlich's plan. Brinkman explains that's because he believes it equates to a shift of revenues, not an increase. Any added burden from the sales tax on renters, such as college students and the poor, wouldn't be significant because they mostly buy non-taxable items such as food and medicine, he says.

Opponents, though, cite research at the University of California that people with income low enough to be eligible for food stamps spend an average of about 45 percent of their income on goods that are subject to sales taxes.

Using the $15 average rollback per every $100,000 in property value that Heimlich has said would occur and comparing it with data on average spending levels for household leads to troubling results for low- and middle-income residents.

That means a family of four living under the federal poverty level of $18,850 in annual earnings would spend more than $8,400 on taxable items. The quarter-cent sales tax increase would cost them an extra $20 per year.

By comparison, the owner of a $200,000 home who spends $10,000 annually on taxable goods would save $5 per year due to the property tax rebate. The owner of a $500,000 home who spends $10,000 annually on taxable goods would save $50 per year; the owner of a $5 million home who spends $10,000 would save $725 per year.

As critics of the proposal note, those are conservative estimates. If someone owns a home valued at $200,000 or higher, chances are good he'll spend considerably more each year on taxable items, further reducing any potential property tax rollback savings.

But large business and commercial property owners will receive the most savings from the rollback, many of which already pay little or no sales tax, depending on their type of business.

Helping the feds
Putting a sales tax increase on the Nov. 7 ballot so voters can decide the issue has become the centerpiece of Heimlich's re-election campaign.

In his campaign appearances and literature, he partially attributes Cincinnati's increase in homicides and violent crime to a lack of jail space.

"Our city is full of violence," Heimlich says. "Every day, people are being brutalized on the streets of the city and the county. The first role of a democracy is to protect its citizens. It's that simple."

But statistics don't support Heimlich's assertions.

The early release of people arrested prior to their arraignment or assignment of a court date decreased from 1999 to 2004, according to a recent study done for Hamilton County by the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice. The release of suspects before processing dropped from 67 percent in 1999 to 43 percent in 2004, the study states.

In recent years, judges routinely are setting higher bonds that many suspects can't afford to pay, partially at the request of neighborhood groups that are petitioning courts to be tougher on crime.

"It's probably good for the neighborhoods, but at the same time it's feeding into the jail overcrowding," says attorney Steve Goodin, a former assistant county prosecutor now in private practice.

At the same time, the length of stay in jail for all offenses, major and minor, increased between 1999 and 2004, according to the Vera Institute study.

A review of county records shows that in 2004, 180 inmates were released early; another 2,361 people were fingerprinted and photographed, then let go to await their court dates.

In 2005, 266 inmates were released early; another 4,251 people were only processed and let go.

Through March of this year, 67 inmates were released early; another 1,600 people were processed and let go.

None of the inmates released early, however, were convicted of violent crimes.

"The misdemeanor offenders are the ones filling up the jails," Goodin says. "But murderers are not being let go; that's not the case. It's the folks who are in there for other types of offenses."

Still, Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters says the situation sends the wrong message to all criminals.

"It's become a joke," he says. "They know there's no room in our jails."

A proposal to build a new jail originally was included in the 1996 sales tax increase that also was designed to pay for the new Reds and Bengals stadiums. By the time the measure reached the ballot, the jail component was removed by officials who feared it might jeopardize stadium plans.

In April, Hamilton County began housing up to 200 prisoners per day at the Butler County Jail due to overcrowding here. Hamilton County pays $65 a day for each prisoner it houses in Butler County, while officials try to reach consensus on how to build a new jail here.

Even as Hamilton County ships some of its inmates to Butler County, the sheriff's office continues to accept money to house some federal prisoners in Hamilton County's jail. Although officials say the number of federal prisoners isn't significant, the situation has prompted some critics to push for reviewing local procedures about which prisoners should take precedence for the cells.

'Easy way out'
When Heimlich unveiled his proposal in early June to raise the sales tax by a quarter-cent for 20 years, he called on high-powered help in trying to persuade voters to back the plan. Besides Leis — who, several county insiders say, is so desperate to have a jail built that he'd support any financing plan — Heimlich also trotted out millionaire financier Carl Lindner, a major contributor to many local politicians, including Heimlich and the other Republican county commissioner, Pat DeWine.

Heimlich's critics questioned why Lindner spoke publicly on the plan because the United Dairy Farmers founder isn't an expert on jail or criminal justice issues. Political observers countered that Lindner's presence was meant as a message to other elected officials: Support Heimlich's proposal or else.

Other officials attending the kick-off for the sales tax proposal included Deters and State Rep. Bill Seitz (R-Green Township), both Republicans; Dale Mallory, a Democratic candidate for state representative and brother of Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory; police union leaders; and uber-lobbyist Dick Weiland.

Notably absent from the announcement was DeWine, who could provide the crucial second vote on the county commission needed to place the sales tax hike on the Nov. 7 ballot.

Two weeks later DeWine issued a memo outlining numerous reasons why he wouldn't support Heimlich's plan. Chief among them, he wrote, was that raising taxes should be a last resort.

"A sales tax is the easy way out," DeWine wrote. "Rather than cut costs, sacrifice and make choices, the convenient thing for government to do when it wants more money is always simply to raise taxes. There are particular reasons Hamilton County voters will be skeptical of another sales tax increase, particularly one that is projected to last a full 20 years. The public rightly has been outraged by the stadium sales tax that was promised to expire in 30 years, but that will be nowhere close to paying off the stadium debt in that period."

Also, DeWine disputed the property tax savings that Heimlich included in his plan.

"The Drake levy is already scheduled to come off the tax rolls, completely apart from the sales tax proposal," DeWine wrote. "If the sales tax should be implemented, it will simply mean that Hamilton County taxpayers will lose any benefit from that tax decrease. ... Once the jail-financing plan fully kicks in, citizens will be paying $32.5 million in new sales taxes but only receiving a property tax rebate of $9.3 million. Even this may prove illusory. Future (county commissioners) will remain free to redirect the 'rebate' to any purpose they desire."

Further, DeWine notes that Heimlich's plan to add a 1,800-bed jail facility is misleading. Most of the sales tax wouldn't be used to add new jail beds but rather to replace existing ones. The proposal would add a net total of 762 new beds to the county system and replace 1,038 existing beds.

Although Heimlich's proposal calls for closing the Queensgate, Reading Road and Turning Point detention facilities, DeWine believes that isn't necessary. DeWine prefers renovating the aging Queensgate jail, and says there aren't any structural reasons to close the other two facilities.

Republican split
Meanwhile, Portune recently suggested that, if Heimlich wants to use a sales tax hike, it should be a half-cent increase for only four years. That would generate about $64 million annually, enough to pay for the jail in four years with a little extra for other purposes. The proposal is a better deal, Portune adds, because it avoids the $203 million in debt financing needed under Heimlich's plan.

"It allows you to virtually pay cash for construction of the jail," Portune says. "If you can pay cash for something, you're going to spend a lot less money."

Jail construction and financing would total $428 million under Heimlich's plan; it would total $240 million under Portune's.

The jail issue has created a deep schism among the three county commissioners, who have until Aug. 24 to decide whether to place a sales tax increase on the Nov. 7 ballot.

To sort through the various proposals and determine the county's actual needs, DeWine and Portune created a task force this summer to examine issues connected with building a new jail. The task force included law enforcement personnel, social service agencies, business people and others.

Both DeWine and Portune have been actively involved with the task force's work. Heimlich, however, has refused to attend any of the task force's meetings this summer. In his place, Rob Seddon, Heimlich's chief of staff, has sat quietly in the back of the room, taking notes.

It's not the first time Heimlich and DeWine's dispute over the jail issue has spilled into public view. The pair was scheduled to appear together June 25 on Newsmakers on WKRC (Channel 12) to debate the issue. At Heimlich's insistence, however, the commissioners didn't sit together or engage in a back-and-forth dialogue.

During the program, host Dan Hurley said, "I wanted to have commissioners Heimlich and DeWine discuss this issue together, but Phil Heimlich decided that he did not want to sit together, and consequently we are going to do these interviews separately."

After more than a month of review, the county's jail task force issued its recommendations July 31. It concluded a new 1,800-bed facility is needed in a centralized urban location, echoing the results of a county study completed in December 2005.

The task force didn't issue a recommendation on how to fund the jail's construction, stating it's a policy decision that should be left to elected officials.

Also, the task force concluded that law enforcement and social service agencies need to work in a more coordinated manner to handle the influx of people in the criminal justice system who have substance abuse and mental health issues.

The number of people arrested for drug offenses has spiked in recent years, according to Barbara Tombs, of the Vera Institute. From 1999 to 2004, drug offenses have increased from 17 percent of all people arrested to 26 percent. Inmates requiring specialized services such as psychiatric treatment and detoxification have jumped 17 percent in that period.

"As I see it, you don't have a crime problem, you have a drug problem," Tombs says. "That's driving everything else."

The county's task force recommended the creation of a permanent Inmate and Offenders Services Commission to focus on treatment, education and counseling. It also recommended the county provide funding for the group.

"If we don't do something, we're going to end up needing an even bigger jail," says task force chair Crystal Faulkner, a local accountant and radio talk-show host. "People don't usually get over drugs by just going to jail."

The same evening the recommendations were released, Faulkner held a fund-raiser for Heimlich's re-election campaign at her Hyde Park home. Her son, Nick, works on Heimlich's campaign.

Some people, including Portune, have questioned whether Faulkner's ties to Heimlich affected the task force's conclusions, which were supposed to be the result of an independent, non-partisan review.

Ignoring the addiction
But at least one task force member says the review was fair and impartial. David Singleton, director of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, a non-profit group that advocates reforming Ohio's jails and prisons and provides legal representation for inmates and former offenders, says he began serving on the task force believing another jail wasn't needed, but research convinced him otherwise.

"We do have a capacity issue," Singleton says. "What both the (county) study and the Vera Institute emphasized was that we need to build a jail, but also we really need to be focusing on drug treatment issues and root causes in our community."

David Pepper, the Democrat campaigning to replace Heimlich on the county commission, notes that Heimlich's plan doesn't set aside any money for drug treatment. Pepper criticizes Heimlich for not taking any action on jail overcrowding until the last few months of his four-year term.

Heimlich took office in January 2003. Pepper cites a June 2004 statement by Heimlich: "There's nothing more important than having a jail cell for someone who deserves to be locked up for committing a crime."

But Heimlich didn't order a study to examine the overcrowding issue until June 2005, more than a year later, Pepper says. The study was completed in December 2005, but Heimlich offered no jail proposal until June 2006, when his re-election campaign heated up.

"He's politicking on the back of the victims of crime," Pepper says. "He did nothing on the issue for the first three and one-half years he was in office."

Waiting on voters to approve a sales tax before building a new jail is a risky gamble, Pepper adds.

"If the sales tax goes down to defeat, then we've done nothing but waste a lot of time and money," he says. "If Phil Heimlich truly believes this is the answer, he should let the commissioners approve the tax themselves so we can get to work on it tomorrow."

Wherever a new jail is built and however it's financed, Singleton hopes a reasonable plan is agreed upon among elected officials and put forth to the public.

"We really need to get beyond the rhetoric that's bounced around on both sides of this issue," Singleton says. "We can't just use the 'lock 'em up and throw away the key' approach, because the people we lock up today are coming home tomorrow. Unless we change how we deal with them, they will be coming home with the same problems."

Hamilton County Commissioners will hold two public hearings this month to discuss a possible ballot issue for the November election. The hearings are scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Monday at Sycamore Township Administration Building, 8522 Kenwood Road, and 6:30 p.m. Aug. 14 at Westwood Presbyterian Church, 3011 Harrison Ave.

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