County safety tax Q and A

Meetings to explain proposed county safety tax scheduled; the first is 5 p.m. Feb. 20

By GARY HENRY ghenry@prairiepress.net
Posted 2/17/20

safety tax  can also be applied to pay bonds sold to either build new or repair.

Staffing applies to more than hiring corrections officers.

“Our goal is to get the operation of the …

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County safety tax Q and A

Meetings to explain proposed county safety tax scheduled; the first is 5 p.m. Feb. 20

Posted

safety tax  can also be applied to pay bonds sold to either build new or repair.

Staffing applies to more than hiring corrections officers.

“Our goal is to get the operation of the sheriff’s department where it needs to be,” said Voigt. “It’s not just the jail. We need deputies. We have a deficit in deputies and corrections officers.”

Edgar County has only four road deputies to provide 24-hour coverage, and previous discussion has revealed the county pays both deputies and corrections officers less than their counterparts earn in neighboring counties.

The county cannot use the tax for anything other than safety matters, nor can it borrow from the safety tax to help other funds.

 

The hard numbers

Edgar County is not saving money by having the jail closed. People that are arrested and can’t post bond or those sentenced to jail must be held in custody so the county is paying three other facilities to house local inmates.

Voigt said the bill just for keeping people in other jails was almost $45,000 in December and the amount for January was not available at the time of the interview. That cost does not include the expense of paying corrections officers and the transportation for taking local arrests to the other jails and shuttling them back and forth for numerous court appearances.

Based on the December bill, the county is on the hook for an estimated $850,000 this year just to house inmates if the jail does not re-open. In contrast, the original budget for the jail operation was $624,340 and that amount factors in having two corrections officers on each shift.

Those numbers are a big jump from past years. In 2017, the department’s budget was $1.158 million with $324,436 for the jail; 2018 – $1.178 million with $323,078 for the jail; and 2019 – $1.299 million and $386,688 for the jail.

It is important to note the numbers for 2017, 2018 and 2019 did not include having two corrections officers on duty at all times and a jail administrator as required by the state for facilities housing more than 25 inmates, which the Edgar County Jail did frequently, and often had more than that number.

“We as a county weren’t doing what we needed to do,” said Voigt. “One officer on duty couldn’t adequately protect himself or the prisoners. We couldn’t guarantee the safety of the jailers or the prisoners.”

He added while the public assumes the condition of the building is the big problem, and DOC and the insurance company have concerns there also, the bigger issue for the inspectors was the lack of staff, the lack of policy and the lack of oversight.

“The old structure is not meeting current guidelines,” Voigt said. “The physical part of the building is not easy to correct, but it can be done easier than changing the culture.”

Steps are ongoing to get the jail reopened. The county hired an experienced jail administrator and improvements to the lighting, electrical service, plumbing and heating and ventilation systems are in progress as part of the SmartWatt energy/cost saving project.

“We’ve taken it some steps further with things that are not part of SmartWatt,” Voigt said. “We’ve built new showers that don’t leak, cut away and put in new concrete where one shower was leaking and we are going to paint the walls with prime coating, which is like an epoxy floor covering.”

The prime coat, he said, will make the space brighter, make the jail easier to clean and also make it harder for inmates to vandalize the walls. 

 

Here’s the financial rub

Edgar County has budgeted $1,005,000 in revenue from property taxes based on a tax rate of 27 cents on the hundred. That is not the county’s only source of revenue as there are sales taxes and other fees for a total of about $4.8 million.

The sheriff’s department budget takes nearly one-fourth of the county’s total budget and all of the land-based tax revenue. The funds left over are used for the other offices – county clerk, treasurer, circuit clerk, supervisor of assessments, probation, state’s attorney, public defender, Edgar County Emergency Services and Disaster Agency and the animal shelter. Those expenses include employee pay, pension payments, health insurance premiums, office supplies, utilities, maintenance of buildings and other related expenses. In addition, the county is paying toward the courthouse bell tower restoration and more than $500,000 in other debt.

The state is supposed to reimburse some of those expenses but reimbursements are not regular causing cash flow problems. Part of the $4.8 million the county’s expected revenue includes borrowing $500,000 in tax anticipation warrants to deal with cash flow problems. That is money that must be paid back, with interest, and does not help the financial picture.

Voigt stressed neither the local property taxes nor the proposed safety tax generate enough money on their own to properly operate the sheriff’s department and the jail. Having both will go a long way to correcting the problems that exist now, improving services and meeting future needs.

 

Learn more

Two public meetings are planned to provide first-hand information about the safety tax. County board members will be available to discuss need and answer questions at 5 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 20, in the basement meeting of Prospect Bank, using the northwest door. The other meeting has a tentative start time of 7 p.m. March 2, also at the bank.

“The idea of having them at different times is so people who have different schedules can have a way to attend,” said Voigt.

He added it is important citizens be informed about this issue since early voting is underway now for the March 17 primary.

Finding more money for the sheriff’s department and jail operations is necessary to get the jail re-opened.

“We can’t stop doing things,” said Voigt.