By Tim Cox
Mercer County officials will not seek a sales tax to pay for a new jail this year, but a ballot issue is almost certain for sometime in 2007.
County commisisoners and Sheriff Jeff Grey on Thursday agreed to delay seeking a new tax to pay for a jail so they have adequate time to properly educate the public about the project. Even though engineers have laid out a design plan that would allow county officials to get a tax issue on the November ballot, they decided it would be most prudent to wait.
County officials tentatively plan to build a 96-100-bed jail on county-owned land west of Celina near the county home in an area where the county owns more than 300 acres. The most likely site on the land for the jail is between Foundations Behavioral Health Services and the county home. The current estimate for the project is $12 million, plus another nearly $1 million in engineering costs.
Officials unanimously agreed that attempting to get a sales tax approved yet this year would be a stretch.
"I think November is too quick. We've got to put together the best program we can," Commissioner Jerry Laffin said, suggesting a series of town meetings in every community in the county to inform people about the jail issue. "We need more than two or three months to sell this project." County officials must move forward with the tax issue next year, Laffin said.
"This year would probably be pushing it," Commissioner Jim Zehringer said.
Current planning and design efforts will not be wasted due to the delay, Grey said.
"Everything we're doing now will be good a year from now or five years from now," Grey said.
But delaying the effort to get the new tax has advantages and disadvantages, Grey said.
The positive aspects of waiting a year include the chance to share information with the voters and to allow a citizens committee to help guide the jail's design and the tax levy campaign. The extra time also will allow state legislators Rep. Keith Faber, R-Celina, and Sen. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, to craft a possible state grant program for rural jails that local officials are lobbying to get in place.
The main drawback to waiting until next year is that construction costs, which are already on the rise, would inevitably increase, Grey said.
Grey also said that he was disappointed to learn about a brief discussion among Celina city officials earlier this week about them possibly seeking an increase in the city's 1 percent income tax. Twin tax issues countywide and in the county's largest community almost certainly would be doomed if they appeared on the same ballot, he said.
"If the city puts a half-percent income tax on at the same time we put a sales tax on, we're both going to bomb," Grey said.
County officials also agreed Thursday that a sales tax is the most feasible way to pay for a new jail. A sales tax has been the presumed method the county would pursue to fund the project and is the way most other area jails were paid for.
"I really think when we do this, that a sales tax is the way to go," Grey said. "A lot of money is going to come from people who aren't Mercer County residents."