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The County Facilities Sales Tax Boondoggle

This past Saturday, State Representative Carol Ammons announced her official opposition to the facilities sales tax being proposed on the November ballot in Champaign County. Earlier in the week, her office announced that Illinois will participate in the “Three Days Count” initiative, an initiative that will assist states in eliminating cash bail and replacing it with a system that releases or detains arrestees awaiting trial based on evidence-based risk assessment. Currently, the ability to afford bail is all that keeps people in jail while their case is pending. This means that low-income individuals charged with nonviolent offenses who are not likely to be a risk to public safety are punished by the loss of income, employment, and family stability that comes with even a short jail stay.

By contrast, people who can afford bail and might pose a threat to the community are set free pending trial. Keeping people in jail forms an important element of the plea bargain system deciding most criminal cases; as former public defender Pam Burnside pointed out in a News-Gazette guest commentary on October 9, “innocent people will often plead guilty to something that they did not do in order to keep their job, avoid complications on a current criminal sentence or avoid the risk of a jury trial.” When this new system is implemented, the population of the Champaign County Jail, which has decreased 20% in the past 5 years and has been below 200 for most of 2016, will continue to fall.

And yet, the Champaign County Board has placed a facilities sales tax referendum on the November ballot that proposes to spend $13 million to expand the county’s satellite jail and another $5 million to upgrade space for the sheriff’s offices near the satellite jail. There are numerous questionable aspects of the plan developed by County Administrator Rick Snider, but, most importantly, the Board has openly acknowledged that it is not bound by the plan at all. The current plan has been drastically edited twice since it was first presented in June, when Snider suggested a jail expansion price tag of $3.5 to $4 million. The $50 million that the tax is anticipated to raise over the next 12 years is essentially a slush fund, as the News-Gazette suggested in its September 27 editorial opposing the referendum.

The capacity of the satellite jail is to be increased from 182 beds to 282, which includes a 30-bed “medical unit.” As there is no plan or funding to increase staffing, training, or equipment, there is no reason to think such a unit would have prevented the three deaths that happened in the jail over the past year. The most recent facilities draft plan from September 27 refers to the figure of 313 as the current combined capacity of the satellite jail and the downtown jail, the latter slated to be demolished due to disrepair and inability to meet ADA standards. However, the extent of the “consolidation” that the jail plan claims is debatable, since much of the downtown jail has long been closed off, and, while its capacity is still cited as 131, the number of people incarcerated there over the past year has rarely exceeded 50.

The newest draft of Snider’s plan includes $5 million for a “community behavioral health” facility, which would include mental health and detoxification facilities. Such a center has been discussed at least since the report of the Community Justice Task Force in 2013, and, with adequate staffing, would further decrease a jail population in which people with mental illness are overrepresented, as in every American carceral setting. However, the preliminary efforts to plan such a center are in the hands of a committee funded by a Justice Department grant issued to the County Sheriff’s Department, who will benefit under the facilities plan not only from the satellite jail expansion but also a new tactical training center and a new $3 million office, all on top of $3.6 million for jail maintenance.

Snider’s plan admits that “the county alone does not have the resources to operate this center,” and “a detailed design has not been completed.” In a July 29 draft of the facilities plan, this behavioral health facility was dubbed “conceptual” and placed as a low “Group C” priority, but the new draft eliminates this language—quite possibly, as Snider suggested at the September 6 County Board meeting, because “the inclusion of the behavioral health (center) was an attempt to leverage the Facilities Sales Tax;” in other words, using public health services to sell a jail expansion.

Urgent maintenance projects are included in the facilities sales tax plan, yet no single item comes close to matching the price of the jail expansion. Prime examples are repairs to the nursing home and the replacement of an outdated software platform, each at under $2 million. It’s worth mentioning that the plan allocates over $4 million to maintenance at the Brookens Administrative Center, while also offering a $1 million plan to relocate government offices out of the very same building. While the county clearly has genuine needs for facilities upkeep, this omnibus spending plan is a mess, and seems designed mainly to allocate funds for jail construction, a project for which the Sheriff’s Department has unsuccessfully lobbied since 2014, when consultants hired by the county priced a jail expansion at $32 million.

This should serve as a caution that, given the track record of infrastructure projects in Champaign County and jail construction efforts across the country, this one will likely go over budget. Other referenda can be proposed to address the truly pressing issues, and a lot of money will become available to the county over the coming years through the retirement of bonds, including the retirement in January 2018 of a bond being paid off by the public safety sales tax.

Champaign County doesn’t need a bigger, better jail. It needs alternatives to incarceration.

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