Woodford County looks to keep special tax in place to fund jail

By Holly Eitenmiller For Chronicle Media

In 2018, the final bond payment will be made for the Woodford County Detention Center. Paid for by a 1 percent public safety tax, the Woodford County Board would like to continue that tax to fund the jail’s operations. In Tazewell County, a similar safety tax remains in place seven years after the Tazewell County Justice Center was paid off. (Photo courtesy of Woodford County)

There are few things law-abiding taxpayers like less than paying for the incarceration of jail inmates.

It is, however, a necessary evil, and until the tail end of 2018, Woodford County voters are committed to the 1 percent sales tax they agreed to in 1998 to fund the Woodford County Detention Center.

After some deliberation, the Public Safety Committee, headed by chairman Jason Jordy, voted to ask Woodford County voters to extend that tax beyond this year.  The committee chose to skip the March primaries for the November ballot, for the sake of both the voters and the sheriff’s department. 

“As the committee started getting into this, they wanted to educate the public,” said Woodford County Chairman Stan Glazier. “They’ve trying to figure out language that would be conducive to meeting the needs of the sheriff.”

Essentially, what that boils down to is providing voters with a complete picture of how an ongoing public safety tax will underwrite the jail’s operational costs. It also gives the sheriff’s department and the committee time to remedy the loss of those funds if voters choose to eliminate it.

“If we do away with that 1 percent sales tax, there needs to be a way to make up that difference,” Glazier said. “We do not want to raise property tax.”

A sales tax is a more even playing field for Woodford County residents, he said, as opposed to reaching exclusively into the pockets of property owners.

Annually, the Public Safety Tax generates around $1.8 million, of which about $496,000 is leveraged to pay the bonds that funded the detention center. The bonds may not be paid off early, and each year, the excess funds have been used for operational costs.

“The money is not being squandered. It gives a lot more of an operating budget for daily operations, and they’ve been very prudent with their money,” Glazier said.

According to Woodford County Sheriff Matt Smith, the detention center’s annual operating costs are more than half of the entire department’s budget.

“The sheriff’s office, as a whole, takes $3 million to operate,” Smith said. “The jail alone costs $1.9 million. How are we paying that?”

Once the final bond payment of $369,000 is tendered in 2018, all Public Safety Tax revenues will offset the detention center’s costs, if it continues. Those dollars, Smith said, are put to good use.

According to the 2017 county budget, inmate food costs were $129,000, medical expenses were $78,500 and correctional officer salaries, including overtime, were $779,490. The sum of these line items is nearly $1 million.

“We have 18 full-time correctional officers, the same as when we opened the facility,” Smith said. “We operate with four per shift. We also have one ail superintendent and a deputy jail superintendent.”

With an average of 45 inmates per day, that equates to 10 inmates per guard, whose annual salaries are in the $40,000 range.

Woodford County Sheriff Matt Smith. (Photo courtesy of Woodford County)

Along with providing food, medical care and supervision, the operational costs also include electricity, water, sewer, gas, ambulatory and dental services and other sundry expenditures.

Glazier said county officials are weighing options, such as reducing the tax by ¼ percent, despite the need for the public safety tax to remain as is.

In 2000, Tazewell County voters passed a half-cent public safety tax to fund an $18 million correctional facility, which was paid for by 2011. The half-cent tax, which annual generates $5.8 million in revenue, remains in place, however, due to the need for those funds to operate the jail.

“Those funds are well used,” Tazewell County board member Mike Harris said. “(Sheriff) Bob Huston is very frugal with the revenue from the public safety tax.”

Tazewell County Board chairman Steve Zimmerman agreed, adding that the burden of the Illinois budget woes have created egregious problems for municipal and county governments.

“We are staring down a deficit because of state mandates like consolidated 911 services. We must have the tax revenue for the jail, there’s no way around that. Without it, it would be a disaster.”

Like all other Illinois counties, Woodford County has toiled to combat the budget issues created by the state government crunch, Glazier said.

“The county’s tried to be very prudent and keep our budgets at zero increases,” he said. “Across the line all the budgets have been at zero, and we’d like to keep it that way.”

The point in delaying the vote; to allow voters the chance to make an informed decision, rather than a knee-jerk reaction vote. Glazier and Smith both intend to follow through with providing voters that opportunity.





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