The proposed .2 percent income tax to deal with overcrowding at the Huntington County Jail passed, on second a final reading, and will take affect on Jan. 1, 2019.
The tax was narrowly blocked last meeting with a 6-1 vote in favor of the proposal, since a unanimous vote was needed to approve it on first reading, but county commissioners stuck to their original vote, which met the simple-majority threshold to pass the tax on second reading. County Council President Kendall Mickley cast the only dissenting vote, both times.
Every single board member said they did not want to build a new jail or impose a tax to fix the overcrowding issues, but members voting in favor of the tax cited public safety concerns and possible state or federal mandates as reasons why the council has to start saving money to deal with the overcrowding, since jail population was nearly 150 percent over capacity at the time of the vote, Monday, according to Huntington County Sheriff’s Department (HCSD) reports.
HCSD Sheriff Terry Stoffel reminded members of the public in attendance that came to speak against the tax that overcrowding is not new at the jail. He said since 2015, when the Indiana General Assembly decided to send Level-6 felons out of the Indiana Department of Correction (DOC) and back to county jails across the state, things got worse.
“Basically, in a nutshell, what the State of Indiana… has done to us has pushed us in the corner,” Stoffel said.
As of this week, Stoffel said that of the 99 beds in the Huntington County Jail, nearly 50 inmates are serving time for Level-6 felonies, which carry longer sentences that range up to a year each.
“We have a whole block of child molesters,” he said. “We have a block-and-a-half of people that are on drugs and Level 5 and Level 6s – there are some marijuana and some things, but it is repeat marijuana and probation violation stuff. We have two blocks of women, and the predominant charge for women is also drugs.”
County commissioner Rob Miller, who also sits on County Council, said the issue is now a public safety concern, since they will have to compromise on which criminals they’ll hold accountable and which criminals they will let get away with certain crimes.
Each of the county commissioners in attendance chimed in to talk about the liability of running an overcrowded jail, adding in that the state has threatened the county if they don’t address the needs soon.
“The realization of it is that we have a huge liability,” Stoffel said. “When somebody gets lice, or hepatitis A like we are dealing with right now, everybody gets sick. It’s a huge liability for our jailers.”
Stoffel explained how in the past jailers have been attacked and just recently a jailer was hospitalized after an inmate split her head open with a flashlight.
“You’re going to have that – don’t get me wrong – I don’t care whether you’re at a big prison or a small jail, but when you put a lot of people in a small area that it’s not designed for, it’s tough and its rough,” he said.
Stoffel said the state has put them in this situation, and Mickley added that the DOC has cut 600 beds since their change in legislation.
Stoffel said he believes that the county needs to start saving up money now and proposed that the county adds on to the existing jail, which has had more than $3 million in recent renovations, saying the building is in good shape.
“The State’s put this on taxpayers in Huntington,” Stoffel said. “It’s not me. It’s not you sitting up there. The state’s done that to us.”
Council member Ron Kline said he voted for the tax because the county has been “kicking the can down the road” for too long, with council member Keith Eller nodding his head in agreement.
Landrum said he joined county council because he didn’t like the Local Optional Income Tax (LOIT) but said he felt like his hands were tied.
Council member Shane Bickel said that through his life-long experience in law enforcement, he doesn’t think that citizens in the county would want to live in a community that allows people who should be locked up to run around unaccountable for their actions.
Mickley said he voted against the tax because he believes there needs to be more public education on the entire situation.