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Tuesday, October 30th, 2007

New Mercer County Jail depends on levy

By Timothy Cox

Inmate Mark Springer shows the close quarters in his cell at the Mercer County J. . .

Mercer County officials are asking residents to decide the fate of a 0.5 percent countywide sales tax that would be used to build a new $12 million, 100-bed jail west of Celina.
The current jail, built in 1939, is badly outdated and generally overcrowded, Sheriff Jeff Grey said. The old facility poses safety risks to inmates and jail staff. The old lockup also is so out of step with modern jail standards that the county risks a lawsuit by continuing to use the facility, he said.
The sales tax would be charged on all non-food retail purchases and would run for 15 years. The sales tax would generate about $1.5 million annually, enough to make debt payments and pay the increased operating expenses of running a larger jail, Grey said.  
The new jail would be about 50,000-square-feet and would be built on county-owned land just west of the county home on state Route 29. The jail would have cell space for 100 inmates, programming areas, administrative offices and a kitchen.
Opponents and critics of the jail plan have focused primarily on three areas - the cost, size and location of the proposed facility. Grey addressed all three during a recent interview with The Daily Standard.
While operating costs will increase an estimated 30 percent - about $1.2 million extra annually - the cost per inmate to run the lockup will actually go down. Additionally, the county will be able to stop spending tax money to transport and house prisoners at other regional jails.
It generally costs $45 per day to house prisoners elsewhere. On top of that expense, deputies are taken off patrol duty to ferry inmates back and forth between jail and court. The county spent $18,000 last month housing prisoners in other jails, Grey said.
That figure doesn't include lost patrol time by deputies, something that is hard to put a price on, Grey said.
With a new jail, the county can reverse that practice. If Mercer County held 25 inmates from other counties on a daily basis, it would generate about $400,000 in revenue annually, Grey said.
After 15 years, the sales would presumably drop off the tax rolls, and there should still be some operating money left for a couple of more years, Grey said. However, Grey admitted that county officials at that time could seek to renew all or a portion of the sales tax to pay for jail operations.
Grey also addressed concerns that sales tax money would be used for equipment or to pay current operating costs.
"Every penny has to be used for building and operation of a new jail. We can't use it for anything else," Grey said.
The new jail also would save money on food. The jail now pays $3.20 per meal for food prepared at the county home. In a new jail - largely run by inmate trustees - the cost would be 80 cents to 90 cents per plate, Grey said.
A feasibility study that led to the push for a new jail determined the county needed a 100-bed facility. Several statistics back up the study's findings and Grey offered some additional anecdotal evidence.
Mercer County ranks second to Shelby County in West Central Ohio for the number of criminal cases filed but ranks last in the number of beds available. Mercer County has 23 percent of the criminal cases in that region, but only 4 percent of the available bed space, the study showed.
Grey points to Auglaize County, where residents approved a similar sales tax issue to build a new 72-bed jail in the late 1990s. County officials originally had wanted to build a larger facility but the issue was defeated at the polls. Today, the Auglaize jail regularly runs at capacity.  
"We didn't just pull a number out of the air," Grey said. "If we build a jail and in six months we're full, then we didn't do our jobs."
Grey predicted a new jail would average between 65 and 75 inmates within a few months of opening its doors. That includes a daily average of about 24 now, plus another 20 or so who are on the jail's "waiting list." Other offenders who are now released - such as DUI offenders - might find themselves in jail for the night with a new facility.
"Judges shouldn't have to call and ask the sheriff about available jail space, and DUI offenders shouldn't be released until they are sober," Grey said.
Additionally, the county has a list of 1,400 people who have warrants for their arrest. Most are fairly minor offenses, but law enforcement doesn't actively round them up because there is no jail space.
A new jail would allow local officials to whittle that list down, but Grey said there will be a long list of outstanding warrants with or without a new jail.
The size of the new facility should serve the county for 20 to 30 years, Grey said. At that time, the jail would be readily expandable because of the current design, he said.
"The advantage we have by being one of the last counties to build a jail is that we've been able to see other jails and learn from them," Grey said. "We've really, really tried to design it in a way that maximizes efficiency and minimizes the number of employees we need."
Size of the facility is also largely guided by Bureau of Adult Detention standards, Grey said. Local officials must comply with those design standards, which mandate certain spaces be included in detention facilities.
The jail also would have video arraignment and video visitation, which cuts down on transporting prisoners to court and reduces staffing.
Because of the proposed jail's size, rebuilding or expanding the current site was not a viable option, Grey said. A separate site study looked at the existing site and a host of other potential locations.
Ultimately, county officials settled on a tract of land they already owned around the county home.
In all, nine sites were evaluated. They include the existing jail site, the former county administration building on South Main Street in Celina, the Franklin Elementary School site in Montezuma, a residential city block owned by Celina Insurance Group, the building known as the Spriggs Building on Main Street in Celina and the former Big Bear and Wal-Mart stores in Celina. A tract of farmland also was considered.
Building on the county land would keep the jail centrally located, Grey said. Additionally, county officials bowed to the concerns of neighbors of the proposed facility and moved their original site from along Fleetfoot Road to a bit further down state Route 29. The jail would be built in between the county home and Foundations Behavioral Health Services, sharing a common drive with the county home.
"We've tried to be sensitive to people's concerns," Grey said.
The proposed site also lends itself well to future expansion, Grey said.
"I'm the president of the company and the voters are my board of directors. I've identified a problem and laid out a solution. Now, it's up to them to decide. If they say no, I'll continue to do the best job I can under the circumstances."
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