Greene County seeks sale tax increase to pay for new jail

Greene County voters are being asked again to increase the county’s sales tax to fund the construction of a $53 million jail and sheriff’s office.

The levy request on the Nov. 2 ballot would impose a 0.25% temporary sales tax on purchases made in Greene County that, if passed, would fund the construction of a new facility combining a 384-bed jail and the sheriff’s office under one roof.

The current jail is 52 years old and has been under a consent decree for 32 years, which limits the population of the jail and prohibits overcrowding. Officer locker rooms have been converted to detainee interview rooms, programming is conducted in jail administrator break rooms, and a sally port is unusable due to a crumbling foundation.

“We’ve duct-taped just about everything we can duct-tape,” said Major Kirk Keller, Greene County Jail Administrator.

Credit: Jim Noelker

Credit: Jim Noelker

The current sheriff’s office is a retrofitted Ford dealership built in 1929. Combining the sheriff’s office and the jail under one roof would improve safety for law enforcement personnel and make operations more efficient, county officials said.

“It has been substandard for years, and it’s only getting worse,” said county commissioner Rick Perales.

In 2019, the Greene County commissioners hired HDR, an architectural consulting firm, to perform a needs assessment, which concluded that the current jail is unusable and should be abandoned.

As a sales tax, the county estimates that 40% of the funding would be paid by non-Greene County residents who choose to spend their money at area businesses. Greene County’s sales tax is currently at 6.75 percent. The levy would bring it up to an even 7% for an estimated period of 16 years, and the tax would would be lifted as soon as the jail is paid for.

In 2020, Greene County voters shot down a similar levy that would have increased the number of beds from 382 to 500. That request failed by a 61% to 39% margin with 19,893 against and 12,622 in favor.

The levy in its current form is only for the construction of the building, and does not include considerations for mental health or substance abuse programming. Opponents say that without those commitments, they suspect that their calls for reform will be ignored.

“Passing the jail levy endorses the status quo,” said Jill Becker, a member of Greene County Coalition for Compassionate Justice. “Our hope is that, if this is defeated, the next proposed jail will convene a public working group on the local justice system that includes elected officials, mental health care and addiction professionals, community members, and people who have been impacted by the system.”

Despite the lack of language in the bill, the Greene County commissioners said it is “clearly our intent” to give the sheriff and community partners the space for such programs.

““The commissioners support the sheriff. It’s incumbent on us to do what we can to give him 100% support,” Perales said. “We’re not going to put more beds, but will make it more flexible and more safe so that drugs and mental health functions could be addressed in this jail.”

An estimated 65% of the United States prison population suffers from substance use disorders, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Another 20% “did not meet the official criteria” for a substance use disorder, but were under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of their crime. Members of the Greene County Coalition for Compassionate Justice say that diverting those individuals to treatment programs is a better use of taxpayer money.

“Jailing sick people doesn’t make them healthier,” Becker said. “In fact, it increases their risk of overdosing when re-entering society. Even worse, jailing is more expensive and less effective than treating people. We need robust services in our communities and offered as diversion programs, as well as in the jail.

“Diversion programs are offered in lieu of jail,” Becker added. “When people complete these programs successfully, they have gotten treatment for the root of their problems and leave jail without a criminal record. This arrangement can have better outcomes for the individual, their family and the larger community.”

Credit: Jim Noelker

Credit: Jim Noelker

Mental health treatment is a second major diversion from incarceration. However, the U.S. is currently seeing a shortage of psychiatric and mental health hospital beds, and agencies across the nation lack resources to deal with individuals in crisis. As a result, jails have become a backstop for mental health crises and substance abuse intervention.

“Sixty-percent of inmates have mental health issues, but a low number of people are here because their mental health caused them to commit violent acts,” said Chief Deputy Scott Anger. “The majority have it because of PTSD or trauma. The goal is to have the right facility, and right beds to start the process of getting them help.”

“In the absence of the proper infrastructure, in a crisis, there’s nowhere else for them to go,” Keller said.

TCN Behavioral Health provides mental health services to jail inmates and has done so for years. Greene County only has 12 medical beds and three isolation cells. Standards for jails generally require around 20% of beds devoted to isolation and medical.

“We have one hallway. That should be a unit,” Keller said.

Designs for the proposed jail have not been completed. However, if funded, the jail would be modeled similar to the new Warren County jail, which opened for operations on Oct. 12, Keller said. Designed by Wachtel McAnally Architects, the $56.5 million Warren County Jail and Sheriff’s Office is 148,000 square feet, and provides room for office records, investigators, training and conference rooms that the old facility lacked. It also has a medical section that has exam rooms, and dental exam room and medical isolation cells.

“We know that the current facility is obsolete and inhumane,” Becker said. “We also know that any new facility would commit us to the way we handle people in crisis for several decades. A new facility would not be short term. This is why we need to be thoughtful and well-informed when defining what the community needs to be safe.”

By the numbers

0.25%: Sales tax increase request

$53 million: Estimated cost for new jail and sheriff’s office

384: Number of beds new jail would have

40%: Amount sales tax would be paid by non-Greene County residents.

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