New Jail a Taxing Problem

Hamilton County commissioners voted last week to increase the county's sales tax to fund a new jail and a larger safety plan. They considered placing the plan on the August or November ballot but u

Jun 6, 2007 at 2:06 pm

Hamilton County commissioners voted last week to increase the county's sales tax to fund a new jail and a larger safety plan. They considered placing the plan on the August or November ballot but ultimately decided to hike the sales tax without a public vote.

Critics have pounced on Todd Portune and David Pepper for raising taxes to support the controversial project. The third commissioner, Pat DeWine, voted against the plan.

This is the same plan voters rejected last November, the critics say. (It's not.)

Portune and Pepper are overstepping their authority to sign this plan into law without voter approval, some say. (They're not.)

The sales tax is the wrong method to fund such a critical public project, some say. (That's correct.)

Increasing the county's number of jail beds does little to fight the crime problem at its roots, some say. (That's worth a long discussion.)

And a whole bunch of people are saying that they'll organize petition drives to place a repeal of the plan on this November's ballot. (That's democracy in action. Go for it!)

Let's take a closer look at how the commissioners' plan was hatched and the objections raised.

Since January 2006, when the county received a consultant's report recommending consolidation of three existing jail facilities into one new jail, this issue has been front-page news. But concerns about jail overcrowding and the high rate of repeat offenders goes back decades.

Facing a tough re-election battle against Pepper, then-Commissioner Phil Heimlich made a jail construction plan the centerpiece of his campaign. Like the current commissioners, Heimlich could have passed a sales tax increase without a public vote. DeWine would have provided the second commission vote.

But he didn't want to take a stand and be labeled a "tax-and-spend" politician, so Heimlich placed the jail tax on the ballot (with DeWine's help) and lashed his re-election hopes to it. Then he brought out the area's proven tough guys — Sheriff Simon Leis, Prosecutor Joe Deters, Police Chief Thomas Streicher, the Fraternal Order of Police — and whipped up as much "law and order" fervor as possible.

Their basic message was that rapists and murderers were being released early due to county jail overcrowding and that, without a new jail, we were all in mortal danger. The reality turned out to be that mostly nonviolent offenders were being released because there weren't enough beds to hold them and that Hamilton County was paying Butler County to house some of our inmates.

In the wake of Cincinnati's homicide rate skyrocketing as compared to other U.S. cities and the high-profile murder of Philip Bates in North Avondale, county citizens weren't feeling soft on crime last fall. But they didn't trust Heimlich, and both he and his jail plan went down to defeat.

CityBeat endorsed a "no" vote on that sales tax plan, Issue 12, because it had few details (no location for the new jail), didn't address the larger picture of non-jail treatment programs for nonviolent offenders and combined a regressive sales tax with a property tax rollback. The new jail, we argued, would be "disproportionately funded by those who don't own their own homes and those who make less money than the average county resident — the very definition of unfairness."

We ended the endorsement with this: "If expanded jail space is in fact a priority, the newly configured county commission board (with David Pepper instead of Heimlich) will be back next fall, if not sooner, with a better-thought-out and fairer plan."

In fact, the new plan is better thought out and more comprehensive. But it's not any fairer.

Less than half of the money raised over the next 15 years by the county sales tax hike will go toward building and operating a new 1,800-bed jail at the old Kahn's meatpacking plant in Camp Washington. The other half funds a variety of related activities: county sheriffs patrolling Over-the-Rhine and expanding into other city crime hot spots; adding prosecutors to pursue federal gun charges against violent offenders; re-entry planning specialists helping released inmates transition back into society; additional mental illness and substance abuse rehabilitation programs; more money for the juvenile court system; and other items.

Total funds raised over the tax's 15-year life are projected to be $736 million. Portune and Pepper say their plan saves the county as much as $475 million through increased efficiency of jail operations, donation of the old Kahn's site, revenue from renting out excess jail beds to other counties, lack of finance charges and other factors.

This plan is significantly different and infinitely better than what county voters considered and rejected last fall. It can't be dismissed out of hand as the same old plan.

What remains to be explained, however, is why a sales tax hike is the best and/or only option for funding this plan.

"Despite some assertions to the contrary," the commissioners' "Comprehensive Safety Plan" summary concludes, "the simple truth is that there are no viable options to do this the right way that do not require a new tax source. For example, the most recent 'no tax' option proposed spends $100 million to build a building but contains no money to operate the building, which costs at least $12 million per year, and no money for the type of reforms or treatment that will reduce the long-term jail population projections. ... In contrast, this comprehensive approach presents the only responsible option."

Sounds like politicians saying, "Trust us." And that doesn't sit well with a lot of people.

So within days of Portune and Pepper passing their plan, a "weird coalition" of local organizations and political leaders got together to hash out a plan to force a jail tax referendum onto the November ballot. "Weird" not because of people's vehement reaction against the commissioners' decision, Kevin Osborne reported June 1 on CityBeat's Porkopolis blog, but "weird" because the effort brought together conservative and liberal groups that normally have nothing in common.

Guess there's something to that saying, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."

The conservative side includes Citizens Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST), the Fraternal Order of Police and DeWine, while the liberal side includes the NAACP. Each opposes the plan for different reasons, and all agree that they'd like to see voters have a shot at repealing it.

COAST opposes the jail plan because they claim to be against all tax increases above the rate of inflation, yet they didn't campaign against Heimlich's tax proposal last fall. That's because one of the group's leaders, Christopher Finney, was intimately involved in Heimlich's re-election campaign. (It was Finney, you'll recall, who famously melted down at a Pepper rally and publicly called him a "rich, fucking asshole.")

The police union voted not to support the plan because it expands the county sheriff's patrols, which city cops oppose for what can only be viewed as turf concerns. By all accounts, sheriff deputies have helped Cincinnati Police reduce crime since being deployed in Over-the-Rhine.

DeWine clearly favors a new jail, having backed Heimlich's tax proposal, but doesn't care for all the add-on programs in his colleagues' new plan.

The NAACP wants voters to have the power to pass sales tax increases, not the commissioners.

So the new jail itself seems not to be a huge concern among these groups. It's more about the way it's paid for as well as all the new non-jail programs.

Another line of opposition to the jail tax plan comes from those who aren't convinced a new jail will do anything to help Hamilton County be a better place to live. A new jail, in fact, might be counterproductive.

"From the beginning, whether in the earlier version of Republican Phil Heimlich or now in the new version of Democrats Portune and Pepper, the need for a new jail has been predicated upon the notion that crime must increase and jail space must be expanded," says Dan La Botz in his recent Troublemaker's Journal in CityBeat ("No Justice, No Jail," issue of May 23). "Yet Cincinnati's population has been falling since 1950, and the county's has been declining since 1970. Why, if the population is falling, do they think that crime must increase?"

La Botz calls the commissioners "social pessimists and political reactionaries" because they buy into the national trend of incarceration rates rising by more than 150 percent in the past 30 years.

"Our country and our county have decided that, rather than making a better society we'll make more jails and prisons," he says. "A disproportionate number of those incarcerated will be African-American men."

And a disproportionate amount of those who occupy the brand new county jail will be convicted of nonviolent offenses, including those found guilty under the city of Cincinnati's beefed-up marijuana possession law.

"Most in jail aren't violent criminals but people accused of petty crimes and misdemeanors," La Botz says. "Many really aren't criminals at all. Because our society doesn't know what else to do with them, we also jail the homeless, the mentally ill, drug addicts and alcoholics. The failure to provide appropriate treatment facilities for substance abusers and the mentally ill and to create homes for the homeless represents one of the principal causes of jail 'overcrowding.' "

I'm against sales tax plans that direct public money to private corporations such as professional sports franchises. Sales tax hikes that benefit a community at large, however, are worth considering — especially if there's no other option for raising the kind of money needed to make a difference.

A comprehensive plan that keeps criminals in jail as long as they're supposed to be, that gives them a better shot at not becoming a repeat offender and that directs nonviolent offenders into treatment instead of jail is a plan that benefits all of Hamilton County. It might not be as exciting as a new stadium, but it seems like a good long-term investment.

Still, I support my right as a voter to have a say on such a huge investment of my tax money. Remember that ballot referendums — or threats of them — forced votes on the stadium sales tax and the Broadway Commons question. We wouldn't have had our say otherwise.

Given Hamilton County's contentious history with sales tax hikes for mega projects, voters should get a shot at the issue in November. I'll sign a referendum petition, and then (unless plan details change) I'll vote for this jail funding proposal.

Contact john fox: jfox(at)