By Tim Cox
Mercer County officials are mulling over how to pay for the preliminary design of a new county jail and whether those costs should eventually be recouped through new taxes necessary to build it.
Commissioners are facing an estimated $960,000 bill to fully design the new facility and they will need about $173,000 for preliminary work prior to seeking voter approval for a new tax issue.
The total engineering costs are based on 8 percent of the estimated construction cost of $12 million for a new jail. Other fees, such as subcontractors hired by the design firm, could spiral design costs even higher.
Commissioners likely will spend the money for the preliminary drawings from money available but not appropriated as part of this year's budget. They are undecided whether the money should be repaid from the new stream of tax revenue that eventually would be necessary to build a new jail.
Either way, the payout is from general fund tax revenue, but by recouping the money from an eventual jail-based tax, the money would be available for other purposes, commissioners said. "From a purely political standpoint, it makes sense, but I can see it both ways," Commissioner Bob Nuding said.
Commissioner Jerry Laffin said it is really a case of whether the county uses tax money already raised or tax money to be raised in the future.
Nuding said he needs time to think about the issue.
"I can see paying for it now to lower the end cost," Nuding said. "But if it's jail-designated dollars, maybe we should make a loan and recoup it."
Commissioners plan to sign a contract next week with architectural firm Shremshock & Associates, Dublin.
County officials tentatively are pondering building a 72- to 96-bed jail facility that would occupy about 50,000 square feet.
The local jail, built in 1939, is approved to hold 15 inmates based on modern jail standards but has at times housed nearly twice that many. The jail's shortcomings pose certain risks, including "safety, security, constitutionally acceptable housing and adequate correctional programming opportunities," a Shremshock feasibility study that launched the jail planning process said.
Commissioners also point to more than 1,000 unserved bench warrants held by local courts as another reason the county needs a new lockup.
Commissioners likely will seek a countywide sales tax to pay for the jail. The architect's current timeline calls for that tax to appear on the November election ballot but commissioners have said it likely will be 2007 before they seek a jail-related tax increase.