McCOOK, Nebraska -- Red Willow County, Nebraska, voters will determine on Tuesday, May 15 just how tight they want to make county budgets while paying for a new county law enforcement center over 20 years.
Commissioners Earl McNutt, Steve Downer and Vesta Dack decided on Feb. 13 to build the new sheriff's office and 24-bed jail, financing construction of the $5.1 million facility with bonds. The decision they're leaving to voters is whether those construction repayment bonds and interest will be paid back with a special tax levy outside the state-mandated tax levy lid of 50 cents (per $100 of tax valuation) or with a general obligation tax levy inside the levy lid.
The question on the ballot will ask simply if a voter is "for" or "against" the special tax levy outside the levy limit.
If the special tax levy question fails, commissioners would have to include the levy to repay construction bonds within the levy lid of 50 cents. The annual payment for construction costs and interest would be $340,000 for 20 years.
McNutt explained on Feb. 10 that the county's levy right now is 38 cents (per $100 of tax valuation). He said that:
* WITHOUT a special tax levy outside the levy lid, the 41⁄2-cent levy to repay jail construction bonds would push the county's existing levy to 421⁄2 cents. Then, with another approximately 3-cent levy for jail operational costs (on top of the current jail operation costs), he said. "At 451⁄2 cents, we're approaching the maximum (of 50 cents)," McNutt said, adding that he does not want to push the 50-cent levy limit. " .... right up to the levy limit, and then we can't do anything more but cut services and personnel," he said.
* WITH the special tax, the 4 1⁄2-cent levy to repay jail bonds would be outside the county's levy lid -- although jail operational costs would still be within the levy limit and take the county's existing 38-cent levy to approximately 41 cents. That leaves about nine cents of "breathing room" for commissioners to figure in normal inflation or salary increases.
Downer is concerned that if the state eliminates counties' inheritance taxes (which Red Willow County uses as a "savings account" to help make up for budget shortfalls in such funds as the county's self-funded insurance) or decreases highway allocation funds (which Red Willow County uses to help fund its roads and bridges budget), the county's tax levy would have to move even closer to its 50-cent limit.
Downer said that with a fixed cost of the bond and a bond repayment tax levy that reduces over time, tax payers should not see a huge increase in their tax bills because of the new law enforcement center. He estimated most tax payers will see a 1- to 2-percent increase in their tax bills because of the center.
Commissioners plan special public informational meetings, appearances at meetings of organizations and radio programs to explain the ballot issue.
When the City of McCook moves into its new municipal building in October 2012, the county sheriff's department will have to transport prisoners (to jails with which Red Willow County contracts for jail space) 24 hours a day, seven days a week rather than being able to use the 96-hour holding cells in the city's current public safety center for short-term incarceration.
Sheriff Gene Mahon told commissioners Monday morning that the county's prisoner count fluctuated from 14 to 21 during February, however, that number does not include approximately 14 prisoners who immediately bonded out and were not incarcerated.
Mahon explained activities of Feb. 22 and 23. On Wednesday, Feb. 22, the sheriff's office received two prisoners from WEC -- the state's Work Ethic Camp in McCook -- at 10:30 p.m., and they were transported to the McCook Police Department. Then on Thursday, Feb. 23, deputies received four (prisoners) from court -- one female was transported to Trenton, another female was taken to Oberlin and two males were transported to the McCook police department. "Without McCook ('s 96-hour holding cells), both last night's and today's transports would have had to go to another facility, creating more transports," Sheriff Mahon said. "Also, today, we had to transport one male from Trenton to the McCook Clinic and then return to Trenton. This tied up two officers for transports and one officer in court."
Mahon continued that on Feb. 23, the prisoner count was 21. "If MPD had been closed, we would have filled up all our contracted jails and had two prisoners with no place to go," he said, forcing the county to transport them to jails with which Red Willow County does not contract at a pre-arranged cost per day.
Mahon plans to inquire about contracting for more bed space at the Hitchcock and Frontier county jails. At the current rate of approximately $45 a day, adding one extra bed would cost Red Willow County an additional $1,350 a month, he said.
McNutt said that when the city moves into its new building later this year and abandons its holding cells, the county's jail operation budget is likely to double, considering the cost of 24-hour transport, additional jail bed rental costs and additional vehicles and fuel.
Mahon estimates he will need four to five additional personnel to act as jailers based at the sheriff's office. "Agencies (the McCook police and Nebraska State Patrol) will bring prisoners to the sheriff's office," Mahon explained. "We will process them (there) and transport from there." Jailers will need to be on duty 24/7, including holidays, Mahon said.
Mahon said he is working with Nebraska Jail Standards officials to determine if the county can use jail cells (closed in 1982 because they did not meet state jail standards) located in the sheriff's office for very short-term incarceration situations, such as waiting for court appearances in the courthouse.
Other considerations for the period of time between McCook's closing of its holding cells and the completion of the county's new law enforcement center, the sheriff said, include:
* The use of restrooms by prisoners. They will have to use restrooms in the courthouse, or a restroom in the existing sheriff's office will have to be designated for prisoner use, Mahon said. Another situation arises if there are multiple prisoners, he said.
* Mahon said that most prisoners being transported now have had the opportunity to sober up and/or calm down during their stay in the 96-holding cells. Deputies will now have to contend with prisoners still intoxicated and/or angry during transport. "I don't want someone intoxicated and angry in the backs of my cars, because some tend to want to kick things," Mahon said, increasing the possibility of injuring themselves or deputies.
Mahon commended his officers for having no accidents or escapes, and no injuries to prisoners or deputies. However, he said, if those should ever happen, " ... you'd better hang on ... ."
* Will blood draws for BAC (blood alcohol content) be done at the sheriff's office or will that require transporting an intoxicated prisoner to the hospital or clinic? Mahon told commissioners, "I do not plan on doing blood draws at our agency, although this is not for sure."
Sheriff Mahon said the law enforcement center's location next to the courthouse will make it convenient for his officers to continue to handle their regular duties in addition to prisoner transport. These duties include security within the courthouse and within the county and district courtrooms, and checking VINs (vehicle identification numbers) for inspection and licensure.
McNutt called the location of the law enforcement center next door to the courthouse "common sense." "The design (of the new building) will enhance this area of McCook, not detract from it," he said. From the exterior, the building will look like an office building -- visible to the public, there will be no razor wire, no bars, no wire-mesh windows, no prisoners in outside exercise areas, he said.
Mahon said the new jail enforcement center "will be nothing but an asset for the county and the city." Commissioner Vesta Dack called it "a facility that Red Willow County (will be) proud to have and to maintain."
McNutt admitted that people are concerned about the jail's location on Norris Avenue. Some have said he him, he said, "We know you need a jail, but ... ," they're concerned about building it on main street. "It's not going to be a detriment," he said. "It's going to be an enhancement."
Mahon said that people see more prisoners now, walking to and from vehicles and to and from the courthouse and sheriff's office "than they'll every see with a new jail."
Dale Dueland of McCook told commissioners and Todd Cappel, another county resident, that Heritage Square supporters do not want the jail on main street, that they "want to preserve the historic and architectural characteristics of Norris Avenue and Norris Park. It's not a question of whether it (the jail) will work. It's a question of, what do you want your community to look like?"
Dueland questioned whether Mahon's prisoners are "hardened criminals," saying that they are the same people walking around and driving the streets ... "your neighbors. We don't view them with the same fear" that jail supporters are creating.
Cappel told commissioners he is a county resident who fully supports the law enforcement center, despite its bottom line -- and the lack of a cooperative city-county facility -- meaning a higher bill for tax payers. "Am I going to be happy paying for it? No," he said, but transporting prisoners continues to "put the sheriff and deputies in harm's way."
Cappel said he does not feel the law enforcement center would detract from "the heritage of the community," but that it would "send the clear message that the community supports the rule of the law and maintaining a civil society."
During discussion of correspondence received by commissioners, McNutt said that he and county attorney Paul Wood will attend a meeting of McCook's planning commission on Monday, March 12, at 5:30 p.m., in the city council's chambers in Memorial Auditorium, to discuss the location of the jail in downtown McCook.
OFFICIAL BALLOT LANGUAGE
Red Willow County
Bond Tax Levy Election
Tuesday, May 15, 2012
"Shall the County cause to be levied and collected annually a special levy of taxes upon the taxable value of all the taxable property in the County, which tax may exceed the County's constitutional limit of fifty cents per one hundred dollars of taxable value and may be levied for a period of not more than 20 years, sufficient in rate and amount to pay the principal of and interest on bonds to be issued by the County, as the same fall due, in an aggregate principal amount not to exceed Five Million One Hundred Thousand Dollars ($5,100,000) for the purpose of constructing a county law enforcement center, such bonds to bear interest at a rate or rates, become due at such time or times and to be issued as determined by the Board of Commissioners of the County?"
O FOR such tax
O AGAINST such tax