Franklin County voters will see a ballot proposition in April geared toward funding a $30 million jail/911 expansion project and keeping law enforcement officers in Franklin County with better pay.
The Franklin County Public Safety Facilities Initiative was unveiled by the county commission Tuesday in a chamber filled with top first responders and city leaders from most of the larger communities in the county.
If successful, the new half-cent tax is expected to generate $6 million annually and will have no sunset clause.
Half, or $3 million, will be dispersed to all law enforcement agencies in the county to help communities better equip and retain existing personnel, as well as hire new officers at a competitive salary as needed.
The other $3 million per year will go toward debt service for the estimated $30.8 million county jail and 911 expansion.
Presiding Commissioner John Griesheimer said the ballot initiative will be called “Proposition P” and has been tailored much like similar initiatives recently passed in St. Louis city and county last April.
“We are still working on the language, but it’s going on the ballot in April,” Griesheimer said. “The time is right and we can’t ignore what’s going on out there. If we want to have good people, we’ve got to pay them.”
In addition to the proposed half-cent sales tax, the county will repeal the current 911 tax and replace it with a flat 1 1/2 percent use tax to recoup tax money lost as more and more residents shop online.
First District Commissioner Tim Brinker said the current situation for law enforcement agencies and the jail are dire and the use tax would level the playing field.
“The sheriff’s department has grown two times the size of what the current building is designed for,” Brinker said. “The jail is unsafe and it would be irresponsible not to address it. This is the single most important issue the county is facing right now.”
Brinker added because of current jail overcrowding, criminals who are arrested are sometimes released and back on the streets the same or next day.
“The jail is constantly at capacity,” Brinker said. “That’s the message we have to send.”
Not all first responder and city leaders at the meeting were completely receptive to the idea of the new taxes and several voiced concerns that a new countywide tax proposal may hurt the individual towns, who may have their own ballot initiatives for April.
The question was also raised how the $3 million raised annually for law enforcement in the individual communities would be dispersed and if what they paid in would warrant what they received in return.
Second District Commissioner Dave Hinson assured everyone in the room they were all on the same team and the county needs all of the municipalities to be on board for the mutual benefit of everyone.
He also hinted the county tax should take precedent.
“We want everyone to be successful,” Hinson said. “If voters in some towns get hit with four of five tax initiatives in April and they may all fail.”
Hinson also addressed concerns about the lack of a sunset clause on the new tax even after the jail/911 expansion is paid off 20 years down the road.
“We don’t want to tie the hands of future commissions,” Hinson said. “Even after the facilities are paid off there will be yearly operation costs that will need to be funded. Plus, the public, or whoever the future commissioners are, can make the decision to sunset the tax at any time.”
Hinson added the first step is to get the initial sales tax passed by the voters, then the commission can pass specific orders to channel the money to the places it needs to go and for how long.
To that end, the commission plans to keep the ballot language as simple and plain as possible so as not to confuse voters.
All three commissioners agreed the more verbiage on a ballot the less chance it has of passing.
Time and public education of the issue are two items the county must overcome to be successful in April.
To help spread the word and generate public support for the new tax, former Sheriff Gary Toelke has agreed to spearhead the information campaign countywide.
“The building we have was built to last 20 years,” Toelke said. “In 2006 and 2007 we had a proposal to build an expansion. Then the economy tanked and it was scrapped. Now, here we are 10 years later and we are hurting.”
Toelke will head a citizens committee made of representatives from every part of the county and hold meetings with residents to explain the needs at the jail and the importance of the tax.
At the meeting Tuesday, the commission agreed if the initiative isn’t successful in April, they will put it before voters again in August and November.