Richard Wilson/Staff

Greene County considers sales tax increase to fund new jail

People who go to Greene County’s popular shopping destinations may pay a little more on merchandise next year, providing revenue that would fund a new 500-bed jail facility.

Commissioners are mulling whether to ask voters to approve the issue on the March ballot — A .25% sales tax increase over a multi-year period to pay for the estimated $60 million project.

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Residents can weigh-in on the proposal at a public hearing scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Greene County Board of Commission’s meeting room, 35 Greene St., Xenia.

“For every $100 of items purchased, a quarter would go for the jail,” said Greene County Sheriff Gene Fischer.” It’s not too much of a burden. We would still be comparable and even less than other counties.”

Letting visitors help pay for the jail makes sense in-part because nearly half of people booked in to the Greene County Jail don’t live here, according to Fischer.

“Our guests are coming from outside the county,” Fischer said. “A lot of people are coming here because we have so much to offer. The I-675 corridor is a major draw, but with the increase of traffic, unfortunately brings the illegal traffic of chargeable, jailable offenses.”

From January to the end of October, about 46% of Greene County’s inmates lived outside the county, according to county records. The percentages were higher in 2017 and 2018, at 48% and 55% respectively, according to the records.

The construction project would replace the aging jail and sheriff’s office in downtown Xenia, and it could look and function a lot like the one to be built in Warren County.

In neighboring Warren County, people are paying a quarter-percent higher sales tax to fund a new 496-bed jail facility there.

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Construction started earlier this year on the $56.5 million Warren County project, which is expected to be complete by 2021. Warren County’s sales tax increase is in place for five years. Combined with the state sales tax, the rate brings the total to 7%, and Greene County’s proposal, if placed on the ballot and approved by voters, would result in the same rate.

But it’s unclear how long the possible sales tax would be in place in Greene County.

At least $28.4 million is expected to be collected this year from sales tax revenue in Greene County, according to Auditor David Graham. The proposed increase would amount to an additional $7.1 million a year, Graham said.

“Over a 12-year period that would amount to an additional $85.3 million. This assumes no growth in sales tax revenue,” Graham said. “Historically, sales tax revenue grows 2 to 3% per year though there have been a few down years including a 1.4% decrease in 2018 due to the loss of sales tax on (Medicaid Managed Care Organization) providers.”

Fischer said voters may be asked to approve up to a 12-year period on the increase. If enough revenue is generated before the time limit, commissioners would vote to change the increase to zero percent.

More years may be needed, he said, because of the fluxuations in sales tax revenue and the ever-increasing costs of construction materials and labor.

Greene County’s plan is to build the jail and a new sheriff’s office near the county’s Adult Detention Center on Greene Way Boulevard and relocate operations from the current jail and sheriff’s office in downtown Xenia.

The downtown jail was built in 1969 and operates under a federal consent decree issued in 1989 because of overcrowding issues.

On paper, the downtown jail has a capacity for 95 inmates, but in reality it can house up to 146. Inmates who are serving time for non-violent offenses are housed at the ADC.

Officials have pointed to the lack of space in the jail and its antiquated model as barriers to adding or expanding rehabilitation programs. The county in 2003 started Greene Leaf, a six-month program aimed at reducing recidivism by providing counseling for substance abuse, parenting and mental health.

Many county officials and residents, including Kim McCarthy, see a need to increase access to such services and keep people out of jail.

McCarthy said she would support a new jail facility if it incorporates more rehabilitation services.

“If we add more beds they will be filled immediately, and it would not improve their overcrowding situation,” said McCarthy, who campaigned unsuccessfully as a Democratic state representive candidate in November 2018. “We must try to help people get into treatment before they end up in jail … I would not be supportive of a new jail that only focuses on punishment. It must rehabilitate also.”

Fischer said the idea is not to fill hundreds of more beds.

“With the new types of facilities, it offers the opportunity to do more rehabilitation,” he said. “If we can keep someone from coming back to jail, it’s a win for them and it’s a win for us.”

Commissioners are expected to vote in December whether to place the issue on the March ballot.

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