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10/30/2018 6:06:00 PM
Cass County officials approve jail tax

Mitchell Kirk, Pharos-Tribune Staff Writer

The Cass County Council on Monday approved a new tax rate to fund a jail expansion that will raise income taxes by 0.10 percent starting next year.

Officials set the jail tax rate at its maximum of 0.20 percent starting in 2019 while also reducing the county's economic development income tax rate from 0.25 percent to 0.15 percent, resulting in an overall income tax increase of 0.10 percent.

Council members Grover Bishop, Phil Rains, Brian Reed, Mike Stajduhar, George Stebbins and Tracy Williamson approved the measures. Stacey Donato was not present. 

County officials have said the jail expansion is needed to resolve overcrowding.

Reed said during Monday's meeting that he doesn't like paying taxes but that there are a few services he doesn't mind paying for, like infrastructure and public safety. He added he does not see jail overcrowding being resolved locally in the near future without adding more cells.

"I don't want to vote for adding a tax," Reed said before the vote. "I don't want to do it, but I'm probably going to reluctantly raise my hand."

Bishop said seeing the jail expansion through is part of the council's responsibility to the safety and security of Cass County.

Stebbins said he's convinced the county would be sued if it doesn't pursue the jail expansion. He added he couldn't vote in favor of creating a new tax without reducing another one, especially after what he described as local governments' senseless contributions of tax dollars to Logansport Memorial Hospital and the Cass County Family YMCA.

Stebbins was the sole dissenter in the county council's approval last year of $250,000 in economic development income tax funds to the hospital's capital campaign raising money for new cancer treatment and obstetrics services. Logansport City Council approved the same amount from its economic development income tax funds. Earlier this year, the city approved $500,000 for the YMCA and the county is considering $350,000, which Stebbins opposes.

"It bothers me when people set up here on councils, they give money away like candy at Halloween but yet they personally don't donate their own freaking money," Stebbins said.

Stebbins said after Monday's meeting that lowering the economic development income tax rate will result in decreases in that funding next year to the tune of over $365,000 for Cass County, over $305,000 for Logansport, almost $10,000 for Galveston, over $6,700 for Royal Center, over $5,700 for Walton and $366 for Onward.

During the meeting, council members indicated they did not want Galveston, Onward, Royal Center and Walton to take those hits. Stebbins said the council can fill the gaps from the county's and Logansport's economic development income tax funds.

Also during the meeting, Cass County Sheriff Randy Pryor spoke to what he described as an urgent need for the jail expansion. He said the addition will expand the jail northward into its parking lot and result in 150 new beds along with an area to house juveniles with enough room for four males and four females.

"On a daily basis our jail is packed," Pryor said, adding that on Monday there were 208 inmates there with nine more housed in other jails on the county's dime. Capacity has reached 260 in 2018 and the jail is serving 80,000 extra meals this year, he went on to say.

The jail is in the process of changing a recreational area to house 18 more beds, which Pryor called "a Band-Aid."

"It will take care of our capacity today but I'm not sure what the future holds," he said.

If the jail is not expanded, Pryor said the county would likely pay regardless in the form of a lawsuit spurred by the overcrowding.

As he and other officials have in the past, Pryor said the overcrowding is due to the Indiana General Assembly's sentencing reform several years ago that resulted in county jails taking on more inmates that would have previously been incarcerated with the Indiana Department of Correction. Many of those inmates have charges relating to drug abuse, a societal issue Pryor said will take a long time to solve.

Cass County Commissioner Ralph Anderson recalled how the jail was finished in 1999. It was built larger than what was needed, he said, and housed prisoners from across the state at a profit to the county. He went on to recall how the county bought properties in 2004 that Cass/Pulaski Community Corrections operates out of to provide alternatives to jail sentences.

"So even though we built a jail bigger than what we needed, even though we added community corrections, we are still out of compliance," Anderson said.

Jail population is continually at over 85 percent of capacity, Anderson elaborated, a benchmark the state does not want jails to exceed too often. When the State Legislature created what he described as a burden through its sentencing reform, counties asked for a remedy and legislators provided one with the option of the tax the council considered Monday.

Cass County Commissioners President Jim Sailors addressed the notion that the jail was designed to be able to be expanded upward but added that would require doubling staff and still wouldn't achieve the amount of beds needed. 

Sheryl Pherson, the county's chief public defender and a Logansport-based attorney, agreed the jail is overcrowded but urged council members to consider alternatives before raising taxes and pursuing an expansion.

She referred to alternatives like the county's new pre-trial release program that started about two weeks ago. It allows incarcerated individuals unable to post bond to be released at varying supervision levels based on their risk level as determined by authorities. In time, it should help put a dent in the jail population, Pherson said.

"It's not the end-all but it's a step in the right direction," she said.

Pherson also suggested expanding community corrections' services, which uses evidence-based practices to treat offenders. Those kinds of services aren't currently available in the jail, she said, contributing to a cycle of drug addicts returning after they're released.

The county's public defender council is seeking a grant for a social worker/recovery coach to help those benefiting from the pre-trial release program as well, Pherson said.

Dave Wegner, director of Cass/Pulaski Community Corrections, said the agency is planning to apply for funding that will bring therepeutic treatment services to the jail. The agency's work release program's 52-bed facility is full with a waiting list, he continued, adding 75 percent of those who come through community corrections complete the program successfully.

Before the vote Monday, Walton Town Councilman Mike Sailors addressed the council's option to soften the new jail tax's blow by reducing the economic development income tax rate. He indicated the result of the new tax pales in comparison to the effect less economic development income tax funds would have on Walton.

"The people need to do the math, that's not too much," he said. "And if you compare it to our federal taxes, the county taxes are minimal and I don't know why everyone's whining about a couple of bucks. If you need a jail, build your jail."

Walton Town Manager Rick Lee said creating the new levy may frustrate taxpayers but that they would understand if informed why it was necessary.

Also before the vote, Leslie Murray, Logansport, disagreed that the county jail needs to be expanded but encouraged officials to go with an option that didn't result in any income tax rate increase if they were convinced the expansion was necessary.

"I think you can manage with the budget you have by moving stuff around and looking at the budget a little more closely," Murray said.

Related Stories:
• Cass County jail project may cause tax increase
• Cass County officials mull $350,000 for YMCA; capital campaign goal $3.5 million
• Agreement reached on $15 million of jail construction permits in Floyd County
• State halts Hancock County income tax hike to pay for new jail
• Commissioners defend their Delaware County jail project
• Huntington County Council passes 0.2 percent jail tax
• Hancock County Council plans second try at income tax hike to help pay for new jail
• Hancock County County considering new design and location for new jail

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