County seeks legislative help with new jail

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 23, 2001

Staff Writer

Jan. 22, 2001 10 PM

Pike County commissioners told area legislators they want a new jail and believe a new sales tax is the only way to pay for it.

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The topic was one of the hottest for commissioners Monday as they discussed crucial legislation they would like to see passed in the upcoming Legislative Session.

Commission Chairman Willie Thomas discussed the "hot item" of finding money for a new jail.

Feasibility studies have indicated it will cost an estimated $1.2 million to build and operate a new county jail over the next 25 years and the county’s current jail budget is $300,000.

"We have stretched our budget…but our needs continue to go on," Thomas told Sen. Wendell Mitchell, D-Luverne.

When the jail was built in the 1950s it was constructed with a capacity of 45 and on many occasions the number has far exceeded that.

Mitchell suggested the county talk with officials in Crenshaw and Autauga counties, which he also represents, regarding how they will be financing the jail facilities they are constructing.

County Administrator Steve Hicks told Mitchell he met with officials from the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs last week about jail funding and was told the state gets $3 million per year from the federal government for the purpose of jail construction.

Considering the county could get between $300,000 and $500,000, that would only cover the cost of design, Hicks said.

"Building (a jail) is one issue," Hicks said. "Operating (a jail) is another."

State Rep. Alan Boothe, D-Troy, recommended talking to Troy officials and those in Brundidge about building one jail facility.

Thomas said the commission talked with city officials in the past but, when the city started building its new municipal complex, the county was not in a position to build a jail.

It was mentioned that the city’s facility could be possibly be used to house juveniles since the county is spending large sums on transporting juveniles back and fourth.

One way the county could generate some funds is by increasing taxes.

"We’re operating on the same basic dollars we did 10 years ago," Thomas said, adding costs are increasing and the funding is not.

He said the county needs additional revenue and the only way he knows how to get it is by raising taxes.

"I hate to do it, but for us to survive, we’ve just got to," Thomas said of taxation.

It was pointed out that from the 7-cent sales tax here, the state gets 4 cents, the city of Troy gets 2 cents and a penny goes to education.

"We’ve tried our best, as long as I’ve been on the commission, to pass a 1-cent sales tax (for the county’s benefit)," Commissioner Charlie Harris said.

According to figures, a 1-cent sales tax increase would have generated $1.4 million last year.

Mitchell said he would not oppose passing legislation to allow the citizens of Pike County to vote on the issue.

"I would want the people to vote on it," Mitchell said.

Harris is concerned a vote will be turned down like the last one was with 76 percent of the citizens voting against the increase three years ago.

"If the people of this county turn us down again, where to we go from there?" Harris asked Mitchell.

Another item for discussion was eliminating the position of constables, something Commissioner Larry Penn says he supports.

"They’re outdated," Penn said of constables. "It’s just something we don’t need."

He said he recently discussed the issue with Sheriff Russell Thomas and was told Pike County constables are "deputizing people out there."

In some counties, constables are used to serve civil papers, but they do not in Pike County and, according to Penn, those sworn law enforcement officers don’t want them to.

Commissioners also touched on issues, such as home rule with the legislators.

"Our hands are tied," Commissioner Karen Berry said. "We really can’t do much."

Thomas echoed Berry’s sentiment.

"Back when counties were formed, they were formed as an arm of state government," Thomas said. "Now, counties don’t have authority."