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Friday, January 19th, 2007

Committee calls for 1/2 percent sales tax

By Pat Royse
An advisory committee working on the proposal for a new county jail has recommended that Mercer County commissioners put a 1/2 percent sales tax to pay for construction of a new jail before voters in the November election.
The1/2 percent tax was one of three recommendations of the seven-member committee presented to county commissioners Thursday afternoon by Mercer County Sheriff Jeff Grey.
If approved, it would bring the county's 6.5 percent sales tax to 7 percent - in line with adjacent counties' sales tax levels and raise an additional $1.8 million annually.
The group said they picked the fall election over the May primary because it would be unlikely the primary would get a high voter turnout compared to the one in November.
The committee said the ballot issue should be strictly worded. It should state that money raised from the tax would pay for construction of the jail and not for its subsequent operating costs. It also should include an expiration date on the sales tax.
Annual operating costs for the new jail could go up as much as 30 percent in some estimates. The operating cost of the current jail is $900,000 annually, and those costs are expected to rise 30 percent with the new jail.
In the discussion that followed the presentation, Commissioner Jerry Laffin reminded Grey that operating costs would be coming out of his annual budget and said budgets vary with the economy.
"It's something to keep in mind," he told Grey.
The committee also recommended the current jail and sheriff's office be demolished once a new jail is built. The sheriff's deputies and dispatchers would be moved to offices at the new jail.
They also suggest a parking lot for county employees should be built in its place. This lot would free up more choices for public parking at the court house, they said.
The new jail was proposed a couple of years ago by Grey, who said his current jail was certified for 15 prisoners and is often overcrowded. Prisoners also are housed in other jails, such as at Putnam County, and there is a charge for that stay.
The new jail, as proposed, would have 100 beds and is expected to have 65 to 75 inmates on a regular basis, Grey said. Auglaize County's jail has 72-88 inmates per day.
Grey told the newspaper that estimates put the cost-per-inmate in a new jail at $16,296, significantly lower than the current $40,882 cost-per-inmate. He said while the overall operating cost would go up due to being a larger facility and holding more inmates, the per person cost would go down because it would run more efficiently and his office would not be paying to house inmates at other facilities.
Grey also told commissioners the committee members worked with him on a PowerPoint presentation about the need and costs of a new jail. He told commissioners he was using it when he spoke on the issue at service clubs and other organizations.
He said he also plans to hold a number of town meetings, with question and answer sessions, in the months ahead.
Commissioners did not make a decision on the ballot issue Thursday. Laffin told Grey he supported the issue and the placement of the proposal on the ballot for the voters to decide.
Commissioner Bob Nuding was absent from the meeting, and Commissioner Jim Zehringer, who was at the meeting, soon will be resigning to take over the Ohio House seat vacated by Keith Faber.
"It (a vote at this time by commissioners) wouldn't be fair to whoever replaces Jim," Laffin said. "We have plenty of time before the election."
Zehringer did say that if he were to vote he would support the issue also.
The members of the jail committee working with Grey are Janet Gels, Coldwater, Doug Huffman, Rockford, Doyle "Pete" Ballinger, Celina, Jeff Schwieterman, Maria Stein, Lou Schiavone, Celina, Herb Muhlenkamp, Rockford, and Jerry Rolsten, Mendon.
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