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.