Jail expansion discussed by board member
As the newest member of the Mercer County Board, I've been busy learning as much as I can about this job for the past eight or nine months. It's been made abundantly clear to me that the most challenging aspect of this position is, has been, and probably always will be to find the ways and means to fund the staff, services, and infrastructures utilized by all of the residents in the county. This continues to become more difficult as the economic condition of our state and nation continues to decline.
Recently, the decision made by the Board to pursue an expansion at the jail has come under constant criticism by a group of concerned citizens. Although my phone number was printed in this paper on at least two occasions with a recommendation for residents to call about the expansion, no calls came. This letter partially speaks as to how I would have answered those calls, had I received them.
First, I believe each member of the Board is also a concerned citizen. I'm somewhat offended by the implication that any of us are not. The 10 members of the Board come from various backgrounds. We all have our own opinions and reasoning processes we utilize when making decisions that affect the residents we represent. The one thing I know we all have in common is that we each took the same oath to "serve to the best of our ability." I think that even though decisions will not always be unanimous, we are all doing that.
Second, the implication seems to be that we, the Board, without any advice of any kind, simply decided to go out and spend $5 million on an expansion at the jail. Nothing could be further from the truth. We investigated the possible expansion very seriously. None of us took this lightly, and I believe we all understand the magnitude of the undertaking. I think we've done everything we can to insure the financial success of this project. Our decision was made only after consulting with accountants, financiers, and of course the Sheriff's department.
Critics of this endeavor continue to try to sway public opinion through partial truths, or as the States Attorney called them, "misrepresentations."
A few weeks ago, the ad in this publication made it seem as though there would be no expenses at the Sheriffs Department were it not for the federal inmates. In fact, most of the expenses incurred annually would be there if we housed no prisoners, other than our own.
Another confusion seems to be the proposed safety tax. Some have said the new tax is to fund this project. Although both are ideas that would supplement the county finances, one has nothing to do with another. Yet another misrepresentation has us spending $300,000 for feasibility studies. That work was commissioned and completed last fall at the behest of the Chairman. Those results are, at least partially, responsible for our decision to move forward with this project.
Then there is the concern over the per diem, the amount the county receives daily for housing each prisoner. Everyone agrees that it's not as high as it could/should be, but what the detractors have failed to note is that we still profit from the undertaking. And, all are convinced that this number will rise. All arguments against this project seem to grab one number out of many, or a piece of a truth and craft them into a negative that in reality, doesn't exist. The reason for this escapes me.
I suppose only time will tell that our decision was a wise one, but all the facts that we've gone over, and over again led your Board to the majority decision to proceed with this expansion project. Personally, I view it as a pro-active step to help with the financial problems we continue to struggle with. I also believe the reality is that there are relatively few opportunities to do so, and we can't ignore one that we have.
I guess another alternative is to reduce the payroll by laying off all the employees. This would mean reducing or eliminating the services we enjoy and selling the assets we have until there was literally nothing left. Then, we could just sit tight and hope that things get better. However, there have also been many residents, also concerned citizens, which have been attending Board meetings to ask, no demand, that we find ways to maintain the employment levels and services of the county. I don't believe they would much care for that alternative.
Floyd R. Utz
Mercer County Board, Dist. II