VIEWPOINT: Garfield County Jail Proposal – A Real Dilemma | Opinion
Garfield County commissioners are moving forward with plans to raise sales tax for the Garfield County Detention Center by 0.3% in the Aug. 23 election ballot. This would be a 0.30% sales tax increase in perpetuity, an addition to the current 0.25% tax on county jails, which extends to 2033. The increase of 5% of the property tax the owners have paid for the prison settlement over the past three years. will retire in 2023.
The prison administrator, Ben Crooks, did a very good job of pointing out the prison’s problems and trying to come up with a solution. In a recent meeting with Mr Crooks, he indicated that the average daily population forecast for 2022 at the prison is 252 inmates per day. The approved operating capacity is 193 inmates. The nominal capacity of the prison is 232, but this number cannot be maintained for long periods. The current situation does not allow adequate segregation of prisoners. First-time offenders and non-violent offenders can sometimes be in groups with hardened criminals.
The proposed prison expansion would increase the prison’s capacity by 82 beds and cost approximately $8.5 million. The new tax would also provide additional funding for operations. The expansion would consist of dormitory-style accommodation and inmates would be required to participate in education, counselling, life skills and treatment programmes. The new construction would include appropriate medical space as well as administrative and visitor spaces.
Prison overcrowding is a multifaceted problem. Improving education, mental health and addictions services are key to reducing recidivism. Inmates at the Garfield County Detention Center are awaiting trial and the process has lengthened. According to Mr Crooks, the average stay of an inmate at the prison was 15 days. It is currently 21 days. Reducing the arbitration period would help considerably.
Those promoting this expansion of prisons have clearly established that there is a need. However, Garfield County voters must also consider whether this perpetual sales tax increase is the highest and best use of our public resources.
If this 0.30% county jail tax is approved, our sales tax rate in Enid will be 9.4%. Enid’s current 9.1% sales tax includes Oklahoma (4.5%), City-General Fund (2%), City-Capital Projects (1%), City-Public Safety (0.25%) , City-Water/Kaw Lake Pipeline (1%), County-Jail (.25%) and County-Rural Fire (.1%). The 0.1% rural fire tax expires in 2024, but will need to be renewed. The current 0.25% county jail tax expires in 2033. The 1% municipal tax for capital projects expires in 2042 and the 1% water/Lake Kaw tax expires in 2052. All the others are in progress.
What will be the source of funding for quality of life improvements and projects that will help attract young people in the future? Is a 9.4% sales tax the limit local voters will support?
I understand Garfield County receives $12 million in federal money from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). County commissioners allocate $2.7 million from ARPA to the jail. The county must currently subsidize prison operations by about $100,000 per month ($1.2 million per year). If the prison’s operating costs are fully covered by the new tax, providing $2.7 million in one-time federal money is a great compromise for the county. I’m sure there’s a lot of need in the counties, but could this ARPA jail allowance be bigger?
About five years ago, state voters approved State Questions 780 and 781, criminal justice reform measures designed to reduce the population of the Department of Corrections. SQ 781 clarified that savings from these measures would be distributed to counties to address addiction and mental health issues in county jails. It was expected to save about $10 million per year. A backgrounder on the proposed 0.30% sales tax says county jails received none of that $50 million.
Would that money have helped reduce our prison population? Could some of the $50 million be used to help fund a prison expansion? Where is this money? Maybe a state audit is in order.
As the August election nears, voters in Garfield County must weigh the jail’s needs and funding options. It will also be important to consider Enid’s fiscal capacity and future funding needs. There will no doubt be other issues and funding priorities to be addressed later.
Blankenship is Chief Executive Officer of the Greater Enid Chamber of Commerce.