For the second time in less than a year, Hamilton County voters this summer likely will be asked to increase the county's sales tax to pay for a new jail, but supporters say that's all the latest proposal shares in common with a plan resoundingly rejected last November.
Hamilton County commissioners Todd Portune and David Pepper will unveil a proposal in the next few weeks that probably will seek a half-cent sales tax increase to pay for an 1,800-bed, $225 million detention facility as well as overhauling and coordinating various substance abuse treatment, job training and probation programs to lower the county's 70 percent recidivism rate.
Because of jail overcrowding, some non-violent offenders are routinely released early, including 266 inmates in 2005.
In contrast to the sales tax proposal on last fall's ballot, Portune's and Pepper's proposal includes a location for the new jail and would generate money to operate the facility. Also, the proposal seeks to divert nonviolent offenders into other programs to reduce jail overcrowding.
"Unlike the approach last November, which was not a real plan because it had more holes than Swiss cheese, this is a comprehensive plan that is a complete program and nails down all the details," Portune says.
Pepper adds, "This isn't a jail plan. We have a comprehensive public safety program."
Although the pair hasn't yet revealed the exact tax rate or length of the increase they'll seek, it probably will differ slightly from a plan recommended by County Administrator Patrick Thompson. Earlier this month Thompson suggested a permanent sales tax hike — initially raising it from 6.5 percent to 7 percent for five years, then lowering it to 6.75 percent indefinitely.
More than a jail
Pepper and Portune say they dislike any permanent tax increase and indicate they'll settle on a period from 20 to 30 years once more numbers are crunched. As a tax write-off, Sara Lee Corp. has agreed to donate its former Kahn's meatpacking factory in Camp Washington, valued at $3.8 million, for the jail site.
Pepper and Portune, both Democrats, make a concerted effort to distinguish their proposal from the one put forward last year by then-Commissioner Phil Heimlich, a Republican who lost his re-election bid to Pepper. 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. The plan was rejected by a 57-to-43 percent margin.
Critics of Heimlich's plan said it was sparse on details such as location and didn't address the recommendations of a county task force on improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the criminal justice system. The task force — which included law enforcement personnel, social service agencies, business people and others — concluded that the system needed to work in a more coordinated manner to handle the influx of people who have substance abuse and mental health issues.
The number of people arrested for drug offenses has spiked in recent years, according to a study by the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice. From 1999 to 2004, drug offenses 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.
"Right now we basically have a program just to warehouse citizens, and they go in and out over and over again," Pepper says. "Something isn't working."
Statistics show that more than 70 percent of local inmates return to crime upon their release, and the average inmate at the county's Justice Center has been incarcerated there seven times earlier. As a result, county commissioners recently created the Hamilton County Criminal Justice Commission, a permanent, 18-member, bi-partisan panel to gauge the effectiveness of all parts of the criminal justice system and suggest changes.
Part of the new approach to handling inmates will focus on how they reenter free life. Teams of substance abuse and mental health experts, along with probation officers and others, will assess the upfront needs of nonviolent offenders in the Justice Center and will create a monitored reentry plan for each inmate that begins during incarceration and continues after release.
Portune and Pepper want the latest sales tax proposal to go before voters in August. Because Ohio law allows tax issues only on primary and general election ballots, commissioners are requesting that state legislators change the law and allow a special election Aug. 28, at an estimated cost of $1.6 million.
County Commissioner Pat DeWine, the sole Republican on the three-member commission, opposes the plan. DeWine believes commissioners should find alternate funding sources besides raising taxes. He suggests the county sell Drake Hospital and the Hamilton County Fairgrounds, which would raise almost $35 million, he says.
DeWine also wants to ask the state for $15 million, ask the city of Cincinnati for $6 million, take $3 million from the clerk of courts auto title transfer fund, take $2 million from the sheriff's asset forfeiture fund and take $2.5 million from the probation services fund. Finally, the county would finance $37.2 million in debt to cover the remaining cost.
"We can afford this approach," DeWine says. "Putting a tax initiative on the ballot is a very risky option."
Instead of building an 1,800-bed jail, DeWine proposes building an 800-bed facility and renovating the current Queensgate jail rather than closing it down.
Portune and Pepper counter that DeWine's plan is fiscally unsound, would gut existing county services and doesn't improve treatment and probation programs.
"Pat's plan is worse than the one last fall," Pepper says. "It's based on faulty economic assumptions and doesn't solve the problem."
DeWine says putting the measure on the August ballot is disingenuous.
"It's too expensive, and it's not democratic," he says. "It doesn't take a cynic to think it's timed when there is lower voter turnout."
Portune defends the decision, noting that inflationary increases in construction costs would be greater if the county waits until November. Also, the tax hike will appear on the ballot by itself and capture more attention than on one crowded with other issues and candidates.
"It's not like we like raising taxes, but it's the only way to go," Portune says. "We need to step up to the plate and sacrifice a little pocket change to save our county and not pass this burden off to the next generation." ©