By Tim Cox
Mercer County Sheriff Jeff Grey and county commissioners responded Thursday to criticism they hear about their plans to build a new $12 million jail.
The most common concern and misconception is that the county could get by with far less than the proposed 96- to 100-bed facility, they said. People reach this assumption without considering the facts, officials said.
"We've studied this," Grey said, alluding to the Shremshock & Associates feasibility study that determined the size of a new jail. "We're very similar to Auglaize County and Auglaize County's 72-bed jail is usually full."
The architects recommended at least 96 beds locally based on crime and court statistics, the condition of the current jail, future trends and modern jail standards.
County officials are preparing to seat a citizens committee who will help guide the design of the facility and sell the project to the public. Those people could be invaluable in helping spread the facts, Commissioner Jerry Laffin said. "We may have to take a month or so just to educate people," Laffin said.
Grey said national statistics show the county needs a much larger jail. Across the country, an average of 173 people per 100,000 are locked up in local jails, not including prison. With a population of about 41,000, Mercer County should have about 71 people locked up on a daily basis. In reality, the jail holds a daily average of 22, which is more than its capacity.
"If we are similar to the average and we build only 72 beds, we are going to be full," Grey said, urging the public to be "forward-thinking."
County officials also point to more than 1,000 unserved arrest warrants issued by local courts. Local police are generally advised not to actively seek non-violent offenders wanted by authorities because there is no room for them at the jail. Instead, warrants are served as police come across wanted people during the course of regular business.
Commissioners are expected to decide within a few days where the new jail would be built. They are expected to choose a piece of county-owned land west of Celina near the county home, but might also opt for a tract of farmland closer to the city if land acquisition can be worked out. Those were the top two sites in a study of numerous potential locations.
Preliminary design is expected to be completed this fall, but construction cannot begin until voters approve a new tax issue to pay for the project. Commissioners have said a countywide sales tax is the likely avenue they will pursue, which is the same way many area county jails were built.