While county officials try to determine if a new facility must be constructed to ease crowding at the county jail, that decision will be made by you, not by them.
If voters in this county do not approve a sales-tax hike of 1 cent during a referendum — should that vote even be allowed by the General Assembly, which is far from a slam dunk — then construction of a new jail at a cost of about $40 million simply isn’t going to happen, at least not with approval by the current county commissioners.
The sitting commissioners would be committing political suicide to raise taxes in a county that is poor and already burdened with one of the highest tax rates in the state. Voters feel betrayed that four years they approved a quarter-cent hike in the sales tax, doing so without the knowledge that our county commissioners were then — and remain — among the highest paid in the state and probably the best benefited.
There is a primary in May and a General Election in November, so it is possible that a different Board of Commissioners will ultimately make the decision on constructing a new county jail, but we don’t see that happening through a property tax hike. It is a question we will ask all the county commissioner candidates in advance of the May 6 primary.
The county Board of Commissioners recently received results of a study that examined the costs of building a new jail or operating two facilities — the current jail and the recently abandoned prison on N.C. 711 that would first have to be renovated. Sheriff Kenneth Sealey is clear that he doesn’t believe that the old prison is the answer, saying that using it would create logistical problems and new costs.
The six commissioners we spoke with for a story today by staff writer Bob Shiles have a range of opinions.
The county, which is not yet under a state mandate to fix the problem, is limping along using a Band-Aid approach. Most likely this ball will be kicked down the road, to be settled on another day and not on the eve of an election.
Several commissioners have floated the idea of expanding the county’s pre-trial release program, meaning more people who are accused of crimes would be under house arrest until their trial, and not in the county jail. If that is pursued, public safety has to be the foremost consideration, so people accused of violence could not be candidates.
Much of the crowding in the county jail is the result of the length of time between when a person is incarcerated and when that person goes to trial. We believe that for a fraction of that $40 million the march through the judicial system could be quickened. Additional prosecutors, judges and support staff would be needed, if not permanently, on a temporary basis.
The problem of jail crowding has to be solved without undue financial burden on the people who pay taxes, both property and sales, in this county. There is ample time to figure this out and this conversation has really only begun.