Half-Percent Sales Tax To Fund New Reno County Jail Could Soon Go To Voters

By: Jason Tarr Email
By: Jason Tarr Email

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Friday, February 1, 2013

Reno County voters may soon decide whether to approve a half-percent county sales tax increase to fund a new county jail.

A jail study committee has recommended that the Reno County Commission build a new jail, renovate the current jail and jail annex into offices, and create a secure corridor in the county courthouse.

The commission is set to vote Tuesday to put the proposal to the April 2 ballot.

The proposed project is $28.9 million. The new jail would be on 11 acres of land and would feature 250 beds with the infrastructure for expansion.

It appears voters are largely in favor.

"I would definitely vote for it," Hutchinson's Randy St. Aubyn said. "If a person takes a tour and saw the shape it's in, it's definitely needed."

A telephone survey of 400 voters found 58 percent thought the new jail and courthouse renovation was an "excellent" or "good" idea.

"If it's not up to fire code and all that stuff, I think it really needs to be done. I really do," South Hutchinson's Judy Turnbull said.

Reno County Sheriff Randy Henderson says a new jail is vital.

"We are virtually on the edge of lawsuits every day in our jail," Henderson said.

Henderson says the jail is in much worse shape than it was when voters rejected a similar sales tax increase in 2006.

The jail faces a major housing shortage. The county has been forced to house many inmates elsewhere at a cost of $35 dollars per inmate per day.

"We went from $15,000 budgeted for outside housing to spending $400,000 dollars in outside housing," Henderson said.

He says two key factors have contributed to the housing problem.

In 2010, there was an escape attempt at the jail annex. The Sheriff's Office had to review what kind of inmate could be housed in that minimum security facility. That immediately dropped the number of qualified inmates from 80 to between 40 and 50, Henderson said. The inmates who were no longer qualified were moved into the main jail facility. The main jail was housing as many as 120 inmates in the 82 bed facility, meaning many had to sleep on the floor.

That's when the Fire Marshall's Office made a surprise visit in August 2010. The Fire Marshall mandated that the jail could not house more than 82 inmates.

"I'm concerned we would lose some inmates because we just can't get to them and get them out of the cell and get them evacuated in time," Henderson said.

The Fire Marshall also found other violations and set restrictions.

"It's going to be expensive to comply with the Fire Marshall's standards (in the current facility)," Henderson said. "We actually have spent between $4,000 and $8,000 in the past couple of years to be compliant in other areas."

Henderson says the jail also has issues with sanitation.

"When inmates flood their cells, it goes into the air vent in the cell itself rather than the hallway," Henderson said. "So it contaminates office areas underneath the jail."

The other key issue he says they face is safety. Right now, there is no connection between the jail and the courtrooms themselves except public hallways and public elevators.

"We have to move people virtually out of the way to move inmates through the crowd of people to get to the elevators," Henderson said.

Opponents say they don't think the sales tax is the best option. Others question why it is important to build a new facility for criminals who have shown disrespect to the laws of the community.

But Henderson says the inmates deserve better than what they have right now.

"We are a holding facility until people go to court. 90 percent of the people in my jail have never been convicted of anything. They have not lost their rights," Henderson said. "And don't forget, I have staff that works in that same environment 24 hours a day."

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