As Jefferson City voters consider a proposed public safety sales tax Tuesday, Cole County officials are weighing how they might address their law enforcement needs when their dedicated law enforcement tax is scheduled to decrease in about a year.
In August 2007, voters overwhelmingly approved a permanent sales tax to build and maintain a new county jail and sheriff's offices and to pay for county law enforcement needs.
When it was passed, the tax could stay at a half-cent for a maximum of 15 years, until 2023. However, voters were told the tax could be reduced sooner if the construction costs were paid in full before 2023.
Auditor Kristen Berhorst said the final payment on the jail facility is scheduled for December 2022.
"My understanding is that if the commission doesn't take some action next year, the tax will roll back in January 2023," Berhorst said.
If it were to be rolled back, it would go down to three-eighths of a cent.
The anticipated average annual tax receipts from the sales tax was $5.4 million. However, the sales tax growth exceeded expectations, she said.
"At the beginning of the tax, we were growing at less than 1 percent a year, and no one would have expected an 8 percent growth from 2019-20," Berhorst said.
The sales tax money is being used to pay the debt-service payments for the construction of the jail, which total about $2.9 million a year. After that, it can be spent on anything related to the sheriff's operations, including salaries, she said.
"The projection for 2022 for the half-cent sales tax revenue is $7,200,000," Berhorst said. "If this was the number we projected for a half-cent in 2023, the amount would drop by $1,800,000 so we would budget $5,400,000 for the three-eighths cent."
Commissioners have been discussing what may be needed when the tax is reduced.
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Back in January, Sheriff John Wheeler and the commission talked about potentially using an "interstitial floor" to expand jail operations. The 27,000 square feet of space above the jail parking garage and below the current jail was put in for future growth when the 180-bed jail was built. It accounted for $2 million of the $28 million project cost and could be used to house more cells or programs such as work-release prisoners.
Wheeler said an assessment being done by Architects Alliance will look at possible uses for the floor, what it would cost to make them a reality, and what it would cost to staff those uses. He'd also like to see a new video courtroom for the jail be included in building plans and increasing the size of the department's training room on the main floor of the building.
"The jail has been running pretty full lately, so we may need to do something with the unfinished area sooner than we thought," Eastern District Commissioner Jeff Hoelscher said. "The cost for materials are skyrocketing, and I don't know when they may go back down. We need to put this on our radar because it's coming up quicker than I think we thought it would."
"We're hitting 170 prisoners on some days and having to house some inmates in Moniteau and Callaway counties at times," Presiding Commissioner Sam Bushman said. "Our pre-trial release program does help, allowing non-violent offenders to be monitored and not kept in custody, but only so much. The sheriff does have some surplus funds that would help, but it won't cover all the costs that would be needed if it looks like we need to open that unused area. There's just a lot of ifs right now. We have to see what information we get back from that study."
Wheeler hopes the study, paid for out of the sheriff's contingency fund, could be back to him by sometime in November. At one time, he said, 25 prisoners were housed in other counties. As of Friday, the jail was housing 140 inmates and had two prisoners housed in Moniteau County.
"When people come into our facility, we have to classify them, so we put non-violent offenders with other non-violent offenders and the same with violent offenders," Wheeler said. "So when we get at higher capacity, it gets harder to get those classifications met. Even though technically I can house up to 206 people, I will never have that amount because there's no way I can achieve the mix that we have to maintain."
Wheeler said they also have to have room for women to be housed with women.
"I only have 24 slots for female prisoners. So if I go over that number, I either have to shut a pod down to house them there or I have to ship them to another facility," Wheeler said.
Wheeler noted there are several trials scheduled for serious crimes like murder cases coming up in the next few months. One of the challenges of having that many cases converging is that he has many defendants and witnesses in his custody that he has to make sure are separated from each other.
Western District Commissioner Harry Otto has attended meetings regarding the interstitial floor study. He said Architects Alliance has engaged a firm that specializes in jail needs to give them expert advice.
"We'll always be attractive for the federal authorities to house prisoners here because we're so close to their courthouse," Otto said. "I'm interested in finding out if the study results show whether or not we need to do a build out. I think it was forward thinking for the commission at that time to have the interstitial floor put in. It's possible it could be utilized if the costs to do so were reasonable."
Wheeler said he gets asked many times about how housing federal prisoners affects jail operations.
"We have an agreement to house 55 federal prisoners, and that brings in $1.5 million a year. But if I would get rid of those prisoners, then we have a shortfall of $1.5 million and that amount has to come from our general revenue fund," Wheeler said. "The $1.5 million isn't considered a bonus. That amount is part of our revenue line on our budget — it's already spent. By having that money, we don't have to dip out of another pot of money.
"Say we put in another 180 beds, if I get another 55 federal prisoners that would be another $1.5 million coming in," Wheeler added. "So that would give a total of $3 million to offset costs that currently citizens are having to pay."
Things to look at once the bonds for the jail are paid off, Wheeler said, include potential staffing if they wanted to build out. Currently there are six full-time positions open at the jail and six part-time openings. The starting salary for a full-time jailer is $35,000.
Wheeler said many have asked if he supports the city's public safety ballot measure, and he said he does.
"Can it hurt me in the end? Yeah, it might. But I'm a citizen of Jefferson City, and I believe we need to be able to retain and attract public safety staff," Wheeler said. "They have the same issues as we do and all law enforcement, for that matter."