t’s time to review some local history as the autopsy is completed on Platte County’s failed $65 million sales tax increase to more than double the size of the current jail. As you know, the half cent sales tax was crushed with 62% of voters against. It wasn’t just dead on arrival, the funeral required a closed casket.
Some of the proponents–yes, there are a few out there–have been quick to point out that the tax used to construct the current jail took two tries to be passed.
While technically that’s true, there are some major differences. For one, the jail tax that was eventually passed in 1996 was much different than the original one that was kicked by voters in 1993. And, the three commissioners who had put forth the ’93 proposal were no longer around when the 1996 jail tax was approved. That’s probably not a coincidence.
So let’s jump in a time capsule and take a flight back to when the effort to build the present jail began.
The year was 1993. A special election was called in June of that year for a half cent sales tax proposal. But here’s an important difference in that 1993 proposal and the 2019 proposal: the proposed ’93 tax had no sunset clause. Can you imagine building a jail with a tax that will run in perpetuity? That alone would be reason for voters to reject it. Supporters pointed out that not only would the proposal build a jail but all monies brought in by the tax would go to law enforcement, so then- Sheriff Tom Thomas could add road patrol officers, etc.
The 2019 plan had a sunset and still got trounced. Note the difference.
The 1993 plan was criticized–and rightfully so–on many fronts, including for providing what appeared to be “unlimited funds” for law enforcement. The plan seemed a bit vague. Sound familiar? It was reported the idea would build a 180-bed jail. A cost estimate was floated of $14 million for the 180-bed facility. In 1993, the jail in use by the county at that time housed 38 prisoners. So the proposal would have increased capacity by nearly five-fold. Platte County has had some good law enforcement leaders, but I’ll say this: when they ask for something, they aren’t shy about asking for the moon.
The 1993 plan was put forth by a county commission comprised of three Democrats: Carol Tomb, presiding commissioner; Scott Spangler, first district; and Chuck Reineke, second district. The 1993 plan with no sunset and with voters seeing it as too expensive and too big was defeated with 63% against.
That’s a very similar result to last week’s 62% against. But the 1993 plan actually had pockets of support throughout the county, receiving majority support in eight precincts: Northmoor, Parkville, Par IV, Platte Hills, Weatherby Lake, Waldron, Hampton East and Ferrelview.
Compare that to the 2019 plan last week which received majority support in zero precincts. That embarrassing fact tells–or at least should tell–present day county commissioners they have a lot of work to do. They have no pockets of support to build on if they want to toss something like this on a future ballot. Bringing back the same plan–or something close to it–would be a waste of time and a waste of taxpayer money.
The week prior to the 1993 election on the half cent sales tax to run through eternity, The Landmark invited Sheriff Tom Thomas to pen a piece in favor of the tax. Invited to pen some thoughts in opposition was Max Hunt, a former second district commissioner. The late Max Hunt, by the way, was one of my favorite county commissioners in my 37 years here at The Landmark. He was known for down-to-earth talk and a common sense approach to government. He was easy to understand when interviewing for articles, and he didn’t try to avoid topics with fancy phrases and words. He just said what was on his mind.
Hunt had some great points in his opposition piece. Here is some of what he wrote in 1993: “Regardless of what you call the half cent sales tax or what you spend the money for, the proposed jail is going to cost the taxpayers $24 million (20 years at $1.2 million a year). How long will it be before Platte County will need a 180 bed jail? Using the present rate of growth the number of citizens per cell at the present time it will take 78 years for Platte County to reach the 224,260 residents needed to justify a 180 bed jail.”
And Hunt continued: “I question how crowded the present jail is. According to a recent news release, Platte County spent $70,000 boarding inmates to other facilities, however the 1993 county budget reveals the county collected $120,000 in 1992 from other jurisdictions for boarding their prisoners in our jail.” Then he added this: “I believe cost estimates are extremely high. Jackson County estimated $30,000 per bed for their proposed facility. The Platte County plan is going to cost $80,000 per bed.”
And, to get back to present day for a moment, an argument can be made that the current jail isn’t nearly as crowded as county officials have painted the situation. Jail population Wednesday morning was 144, and 15 of those are ICE rent-a-bed inmates who are only there because the county wants the income. Boot out ICE and you’re down to 129. Add in the fact new court rules about incarcerating suspects not considered dangerous or flight risks go into effect in July, and the jail population is nowhere near an emergency basis. The jail has 180 permanent bunks and portable bunks (known as ‘boats’) are put into use if/when the need arises. The county commission’s own jail consultant, after all, predicts jail population to rise by only seven inmates per year.
What does all that mean? It means we are likely a lot closer to the assessment Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd made on Landmark Live a year ago than we are to the assessment the sheriff and county commissioners are trying to sell the public on. A year ago Zahnd made the comment that “a decade from now we’re probably going to be out of space.”
There’s plenty of time to come up with a more reasonable, more fiscally responsible and better thought-out ‘plan’ than the one that was put in front of voters last week.
On a related note, with elections for both associate county commissioner spots coming up in 2020, last week’s convincing outcome no doubt invigorated potential opponents of the two current associate commissioners. That had to get the attention of John Elliott and Dagmar Wood. If they say it didn’t, they’re either not being truthful or they’re more out of touch than any of us could have imagined.
To wrap up the 1990’s history topic for today, the current jail was eventually built with a half cent sales tax with a six year sunset that was passed by voters in 1996 under a county commission of Betty Knight, Michael Short and Diza Eskridge.
The facility was presented to voters as a $13.75 million project with 145-beds, and with roughed-in space that in the future could house an additional 96 beds.
Present day county officials, citing changes in inmate classification and segregation rules, in effect have deemed that 96-bed “futures” area is now not an option for housing inmates.
(Email Ivan Foley at firstname.lastname@example.org)