One way or another, people in Hamilton County probably will begin paying more in sales tax within the next few months to help build a new jail and overhaul the county's criminal justice system.
After months of review and huddling behind the scenes, Hamilton County commissioners Todd Portune and David Pepper recently proposed what they call a "comprehensive public safety plan" that would build a $198 million, 1,800-bed adult jail in Cincinnati's Camp Washington neighborhood at the site of a former Kahn's meat packing factory. The plan is designed to lessen jail overcrowding and stop the early release of prisoners.
Overcrowding has been a problem for at least 15 years and routinely causes the early release of non-violent offenders. In 2005, for example, 266 inmates were released early.
The tax proposal also would generate more than $20 million annually to create an endowment to operate the jail and other substance abuse treatment, counseling and probation programs for offenders as well as expanded sheriff's patrols and money to help operate Hamilton County's emergency communications system.
Portune's and Pepper's plan involves increasing the county's sales tax by a half-cent, from 6.5 percent to 7 percent, for eight years, then scaling back the increase to a quarter cent, to 6.75 percent, for seven years. After 15 years the sales tax increase would expire. It would generate $736 million during that period.
Although Portune and Pepper initially wanted to put the issue before county voters by holding a special election Aug. 7, Ohio law prohibits sales tax increases from going on an August ballot.
The pair considered asking state legislators to change the law but met with resistance.
As a result, the commissioners are left with two options for enacting the plan: Wait until the November general election, which Portune and Pepper say would add to the county's mounting expenses, or use the authority granted to them under state law to unilaterally impose the sales tax increase without a vote by residents. The decision will be made soon, possibly as early as next week.
"Historically and personally, it's our preference to let voters weigh in on tax increases," Portune says.
Pepper adds, "The state legislature left us a clear path. They said it was OK to do this, if we chose. It's an option. Everyone gets caught up in the mechanics of how to do it, but we all know it has to be done somehow."
Critics allege that commissioners wanted the August election because the controversial issue would be easier to pass with low voter turnout and would face a harder time in November.
But with construction costs rising and Hamilton County paying Butler County each month to house its overflow jail population, it might make better economic sense to move more quickly, Portune says.
"This issue does not just go away because of a defeat at the polls, as we know all too well from last year," he says.
He's referring to a sales tax increase on the November 2006 ballot voters by a 57-43 percent margin — considered an overwhelming defeat in the political realm.
The earlier proposal was pushed by then-County Commissioner Phil Heimlich, who made the issue the centerpiece of his re-election campaign last fall. Heimlich, like the tax increase, met with defeat, and Pepper replaced him.
Portune and Pepper insist, however, that their plan is fundamentally different.
Under Heimlich's proposal, the sales tax would have been raised by a quarter-cent for 10 years, with a property tax rollback in place for the first three years. If approved, it would have raised $325 million over a decade, with $291 million used to build and finance the jail and the remainder to reduce property taxes.
Critics of that plan, including Pepper, said it was sparse on details and didn't include a location for the new jail or funds to operate it and also didn't address the recommendations of a county task force on improving the effectiveness of the criminal justice system.
"We were left a big mess by the previous commission," Pepper says. "We listened to the people. They said they didn't just want a building, they want a comprehensive plan. This is real reform."
The latest plan would include $13.7 million annually to operate the new jail for 30 years, $11 million to expand the county's juvenile detention facility and $7 million to continue using the Butler County Jail until the new facility is completed. Also, it would include $19 million in contingency funds, $2.5 million for treatment programs, $4 million in construction financing and $2 million to make improvements to the Justice Center downtown. Commissioners also say the plan would save the county nearly $450 million in debt financing costs and through increased efficiencies due to reducing prisoner transportation.
'Easy way out'?
Increasing taxes is the only way to pay for the broader approach that's needed, according to Portune and Pepper.
"The simple truth is there are no viable options to do this the right way that do not require a new tax source," Portune says. "Prior so-called 'no tax' options contained no money to operate the new jail and no money for the type of reforms that will reduce the long-term jail population demand."
Hamilton County Commissioner Pat DeWine, who is seeking re-election in 2008 and is the sole Republican on the three-member commission, opposes the plan. DeWine wants to keep the current Queensgate jail open and renovate it, while also reducing county spending to pay for construction of a smaller facility than originally proposed. He doesn't believe operating expenses should be paid using tax revenues and has called increasing the sales tax to pay for a jail "the easy way out."
Supporters of the latest tax increase proposal include Sheriff Simon Leis Jr., Prosecutor Joe Deters, Coroner O'Dell Owens, Cincinnati City Council, various area law enforcement agencies and the Board of Realtors.
Opponents include the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST) and the No Jail Tax Political Action Committee, a grassroots group that led opposition to last year's measure. Last week homeless advocates released a study saying many inmates are homeless people jailed for public urination and other crimes related to homelessness.
Michael Earl Patton, a No Jail Tax PAC member, dislikes that commissioners are again proposing an 1,800-bed jail while touting that the treatment programs will reduce the county's 70 percent recidivism rate. Too many non-violent offenders and drug users are jailed who should be placed into other programs, he says.
"If you're building a jail at the exact same size as proposed last year, you're saying you think these treatment programs and other alternatives won't work," Patton says.
Pepper counters that the size of the new jail is based on handling the county's needs for 30 years. It won't be filled in the early years, allowing those beds to be leased to other communities. County statistics show that the average daily jail population would jump by about 1,000 inmates by 2020 without the proposed treatment programs.
"The projections are so high that we would need an even bigger jail if we continue with our current failed practices," Pepper says. "This proposal diverts some people away from jail if the circumstances warrant it." ©