Originally Published: January 27, 2017 5:57 a.m.
In the first round of budget talks, Yavapai County Supervisors once again looked at the county Jail District, the need for a jail on this side of the mountain, and how to pay for it at their budget retreat Jan. 25.
The quarter-cent sales tax the voters authorized that went into effect in 2000 will end June 30, 2020.
“When that goes away, it will have a dramatic impact on the county,” said County Administrator Phil Bourdon. He reviewed the history of the Jail District with the new board, which included Dist. 3 Supervisor Randy Garrison.
It was after a Department of Justice investigation found overcrowding and safety issues in the late 1990s that the voters authorized the creation of a jail district in 1999 and the sales tax to finance operating costs.
At that time, the Prescott jail had 135 beds, but it was inefficient to operate and maintain, and the Camp Verde jail had 120 beds. By 2004, the Camp Verde jail had expanded to 600 beds, and the investigation was closed.
As jail expenditures began to exceed revenues, the jail district used its reserves; these dried up in 2007 and necessitated the diversion of funds from other county sources.
An extensive and thorough study by Chinn Planning Inc. in 2016 looked at renovations and expansion of either or both facilities to cope with an increased population and rising operational costs. This included transportation costs and staffing to drive prisoners to and from the courthouse in Prescott.
One of Chinn’s recommendations was to build, in stages, a Criminal Justice Center in Prescott, and close one of the older housing units at the Camp Verde Jail, transferring staff to Prescott.
“Some of the things in the report were very complimentary. It was a rigorous process, but it helped the county compile a report we can stand by,” Bourdon said, before reviewing funding that pays for operations.
The one-quarter-cent sales tax is one source of funding. General fund contributions mandated by law, called Maintenance of Effort (MOE), are another. Miscellaneous revenues, such as fees from the rental of excess jail beds, inmate-paid food, commissary and health funds, make up most of the rest.
MOE payments, based on a statutory formula, increase annually. It required $5.7 million from the budget in 2007 and $5.9 in 2008, at which time the county asked voters to increase the jail tax from one-quarter cent to one-half cent to cover a projected $6 million MOE in 2009. The initiative failed, and the Prescott jail was closed, which took care of the deficit.
In November 2014, with the existing jail system nearing capacity and also needing renovation, the county asked the voters again for a sales tax increase, and again the initiative failed with 52.5 percent opposing. County supervisors said at that time they would be looking at property tax increases, cash on hand and/or cuts in county services in order to pay for operation costs.
This year’s jail district budget has to cover $17.9 million in expenses. It receives $8.4 million in the sales tax fund, $7.4 million from MOE, additional general fund money of $389,000, $200,000 from the contingency fund, and the remainder from miscellaneous revenue.
The one-quarter-cent sales tax supplies nearly half (47 percent) the jail system budget. After it ends in 2020, property taxes would need to increase by 19 percent to make up the loss of revenue, Bourdon said.
“If we decide we’re not going to the voters again, we’ll need to raise the property tax. If they understand (the situation), we might change the hearts and minds of the voters,” Board Chair Tom Thurman said.
Supervisor Garrison said he was not an advocate of raising property taxes.
“It’s not our job to sell it to the public. Our job is to fund the jail. It’s the Sheriff’s job to run it. We’re going to have to be very creative,” he said.
Sheriff Scott Mascher said, “It’s not an issue of needing it, it’s of how to pay for it.”
He said this time of year usually has the lowest population of inmates. “We’re seeing the highest numbers. If this is an indication of where we’re going, I don’t know what our population will be in five years. We started this discussion four years ago. You knew this was coming and said we need to start working on it.”
The jail is audited three or four times a year, and there have been no issues with overcrowding or civil rights issues, Mascher said. “We run a very efficient facility. We want to keep it that way.”
In addition to the possibility of asking voters to extend the quarter-cent sales tax in 2019, is the consideration to extend and also increase it another quarter cent.
“If it is not continued in 2019, we will go into deficit spending in a year,” Supervisor Craig Brown said.