BISBEE — “We’re at a critical crossroads.”
Cochise County Supervisor Tom Borer made the statement Tuesday during a work session as he threw his full support behind Sheriff Mark Dannels and staff in the request for a half-cent sales tax to raise needed funding for the jail.
As pointed out by a report from jail commander Kenny Bradshaw, the brick jail is 35 years old and in need of repairs and upgrading. The jail was constructed to house 168 prisoners, but now holds as many as 302 inmates. It also needs additional health services, since many prisoners bring with them addictions and mental health issues, which increases cost.
“The jail is not adequately staffed, nor does it have the proper services in place to deal with this growing portion of the population,” Bradshaw said.
The revenue generated, predicted to raise around $6 million a year by County Administrator Ed Gilligan, would cover medical costs as well as make improvements, update the jail, improve security and meet federal requirements.
Bradshaw noted that if improvements aren’t made, the U.S. Department of Justice can close dated correctional facilities in Arizona counties, or decrease federal funding for non–compliant facilities which have failed to meet guidelines.
The General Fund cannot continue to pay for increasing expenses without decreasing vital services, Gilligan said. A jail-district tax was discussed a few years ago, but all three supervisors did not agree on putting the tax before the voters.
Now, this board of supervisors has agreed to pursue the formation of a jail district and impose a half–cent sales tax to raise the revenue necessary to deal with the issues at the jail.
“The jail is mandatory,” Supervisor Peggy Judd said. “We are legally bound to provide this.”
Supervisor Ann English said she wanted all the elected persons in the county to put their support behind the jail tax district and literally sign on to help get the tax approved.
“This is long overdue,” English added. “We all agree this is a real necessity.”
The jail tax was proposed in the county’s strategic plan two years ago, but was dropped until recently, when it became clear the jail needed an infusion of funds to care for the facility, staff and inmates, Gilligan said.
“We could make necessary improvements to the jail and facilities countywide,” he said. “We need mental health services for a growing sector of the jail’s population. The Sheriff’s Office must manage this and manage to safely hold people in the jail. We are seeing more medical episodes and suicides, as are other jails statewide.”
The sheriff told the supervisors over the past 10 years, some 40,000 people have passed through the county jail system and 97 inmates tried to commit suicide. Staff was able to save 94 of those 97 lives.
The sales tax increase would be collected for 25 years and revenue would be used for acquiring, constructing, operating, maintaining and financing of the county jail facilities and county jail system, according to Bradshaw’s report.
Dannels has been advocating for a jail district tax for some time. “This is long overdue,” he said. “It’s crumbling really bad — 67 percent of people in jail have a mental health history. We have plumbing problems. There are industry standards we have not met. We’re out of date.”
For Borer, the time has come to move forward with proposing the half-cent sales tax to the voters of the county. Since the proposed tax increase is a sales tax, everyone living in, visiting or passing through would be contributing to the district fund. It is a better option than closing the satellite jails and cutting county services, he said.
Judd and English agreed.
The supervisors proposed a plan to inform voters how the half-cent sales tax for the jail district will be used and plan to hold a special election in the near future.
“We need to do this as quickly as can feasibly be done,” English said. “It needs to be done before the next budget is prepared.”
Chief civil deputy county attorney Britt Hanson suggested including elections director Lisa Marra and county recorder David Stevens in the next meeting to see how soon a special election can be held.
Dannels suggested using a brochure to help people understand the severity of the problem and exactly where the money will go.
He wants the same message delivered across the county as one voice. Meet and greet meetings could be set up to provide voters with all the information.
The supervisors and appropriate staff will meet again on Aug. 13 in a special meeting to discuss the tax further and proceed with an setting an election date.
AGUA PRIETA — In a sweltering, tunnel-like tent crammed with sleeping bags, 20 people wait patiently for their turn to enter the U.S. so they can seek asylum.
They are from different countries — Cuba, Guatemala, Nicaragua, even Russia. Some have been in this dismal tent propped up against a concrete wall for more than two weeks, their children hot and hungry and often times with no place to even go the the bathroom.
Tuesday afternoon, the migrants — fleeing their nations for various reasons — were relieved to see a handful of volunteers traveling from St. Stephen Episcopal Church in Douglas. The church group came equipped with peanut butter and jelly and bologna and cheese sandwiches, water and treats for the individuals jammed in the faded blue tent that had been erected by other volunteers.
The Rev. Rosa Brown of St. Stephen and St. John’s Episcopal Church in Bisbee said the church made a commitment to bring food to the people waiting at “the line.” St. Stephen brings food and water on the second and last Tuesdays of the month, and another church in Douglas does the same on the first and third Tuesdays. The effort on Tuesday morning was the second time St. Stephen volunteers had traveled to feed the migrants in the tent, Brown said.
In an airy kitchen behind the church, volunteers Elsa Hernandez and Rosa Hilda Lamprcht labored as they spread butter on white bread for the ham and bologna offerings. The peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were nearby, neatly wrapped.
“Right now, those 20 are right at the border on the Mexico side. They’re waiting for their interview to apply for asylum,” Brown said. “In the meantime, they have to wait there until they’re called to be interviewed and then they’re taken to Tucson.”
St. Stephen senior warden Dennis Smith said the tent where the migrants are waiting is “just enough so they can actually sit in it.” But the tent is not tall enough to stand in and sleeping bags are stretched out in a long row.
Volunteer Lamprcht lives in McNeal, but said she drives to St. Stephen to take food to the border because she feels it’s her duty. Lamprcht was born in Agua Prieta and still has family there.
“I think we owe this to humanity,” Lamprcht said when asked why she volunteers in the St. Stephen effort. “We need to do our deed for vulnerable people who don’t have anything else, or nobody else.”
Lamprcht uttered a saying in Spanish that roughly translates to: “If you can’t serve, why live?”
Hernandez, also a native of Agua Prieta, said she volunteers because she, too, wants to help her fellow man.
One of those she helped on Tuesday was 20-year-old Rosa from Nicaragua. The young woman did not want to give her last name for fear of reprisal in her home country. She has no relatives in the U.S., but hopes to get a job so she can give her 4-year-old son, Romeo, a better life. She left Nicaragua a month and a half ago and has been living in the tent with her child for two weeks.
“This is not comfortable,” she said with a bitter laugh. “You can’t sleep. Last night we got wet. We are hungry. There is no place to go to the bathroom.”
Rosa said she and others in the tent are in need of toys for the children, insect repellant, more tarps for cover, diapers and water, among other items.
“There are a lot of insects here,” Rosa said.
A few feet from Rosa was 35-year-old Anton Bilenko. He said he left Russia because he was being sought by authorities. He does not agree with the politics there and said he feared he would be thrown in prison. Like Rosa, he and his family have been on the move for the last month; he has 2-year-old and 9-year-old sons. They have been living in the same tent for two weeks, as well.
“We hope we can live together and be free, that’s all,” Bilenko said when asked what he hopes for in the U.S.
He says he learned English by watching old American movies on TV. He repeats the oft-quoted Arnold Schwarzenegger, “Hasta la vista, baby,” line.
Volunteer Kathleen Day-Kain smiled at Bilenko. The retired teacher who lives outside the Chiricahua Mountains said she does not attend St. Stephen Episcopal Church, but heard about the feeding commitment from a friend.
“I told her, ‘I have to be down at that border, I can’t just watch this on TV and not do anything,’ “ Day-Kain said. “These are humans who need help. We all need help. That’s what Christianity is all about. It’s a little hard to witness this. I’m the mother of six and I see these children and there’s no food, it’s hot, it’s miserable and you’re totally uncertain. They’re all victims.”
The St. Stephen feeding commitment will continue indefinitely, Brown said: “We will be there while there is necessity. We are committed while the situation continues.”