Commissioners: Sales tax ‘the only option’ for jail

Published 3:00 am Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Levying a sales tax is the only option available for constructing a much-needed new jail, members of the Pike County Commission said Tuesday.

“We tried all other avenues and that’s the only one we could come up with,” said District 1 Commissioner Homer Wright.

The commissioners voted unanimously Monday to seek local-private legislation to levy a 1.5 percent sales tax throughout the county and a .5 percent sales tax in the City of Troy to fund construction. If approved by the Legislature, the tax is expected to generate about $2.5 million per year which will be earmarked solely for repaying the estimated $8 million to $10 million construction costs. Once those are completed, the tax will be rescinded, according to commissioners.

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Longtime commissioners said Tuesday the decision was a difficult one.

“There is really no other way, you know, to fund the jail,” said District 5 Commissioner Charlie Harris.  “I’ve been on the county commission 24 years and we’ve tried this and tried that and this is the only way we can fund the jail.”

Sheriff Russell Thomas came to the commission in August and told them that roofers would not work on the jail because of the jail’s lack of structural integrity, primarily due to the walls leaning in.

District 6 Commissioner Russell Johnson called the tax “unpalatable” but reiterated that he didn’t see any other solutions possible to the commission.

“There wasn’t any way we could get a grant to just build the building itself,” Johnson said. “There are some small grants we can apply for once we decide what we are going to build. There are some things with ADECA (the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs) and the USDA that we’re going to look at but those grants can’t go to bricks and mortar.”

District 4 Commissioner Chad Copeland said the plan will get the debt off the books as quickly as possible.

“I don’t really like any of this,” Copeland said. “The problem is we ran the numbers on almost every way we could generate revenue and there was no good solution on how we can handle these problems. In the four months I’ve been here we’ve had to approve $80,000 of emergency expenditures into the jail and we can’t afford to do that. It’s a liability for the citizens of Pike County.”

Copeland said the plan is to collect the tax while the commission comes up with a plan for the jail construction and take the money collected up to that point and pay it immediately and issue bonds only for the balance of the construction cost.

Given the estimates of up to $10 million for a new jail and approximately $2.5 million a year in the new tax revenue, the construction could be paid for in as little as four years.

Commission Chairman Robin Sullivan, District 2, said time also played a factor in the decision.

“We’re at a point where it was time to act,” Sullivan said. “The only way to do that was through our legislators.”

Copeland also said the timing led the commission to make a quick decision.

“If we did not get a bill put together to get through the Legislature now, we were running out of time,” Copeland said. “It would be the next legislative session before we could get anything done and we can’t wait that long.”

Wright said that increasing the sales tax was a way to make sure everybody in the county takes part in funding the jail.

“Not everybody owns property,” Wright said. “We needed to tax something that everybody takes part in.”

The commission also approved increases to filing fees for civil and criminal cases and voted to increase fees on certain convictions in an effort to generate ongoing revenue for the operation of the new jail.

“We couldn’t build something and not have the money to operate it,” Johnson said. “That will give us extra money to cover some of the operation expense.”

Copeland said the commission studied other counties and saw a trend that new jails bring increased operating expenses.

“The trend has been an increase in operation costs when you build a new jail because of new mandates,” Copeland said. “We know there is going to be an increase from the $650,000 budgeted now.”

Harris said the jail is a need the county can’t dismiss and asked the residents to support the commission on the decision.

“We have to have someplace to house our prisoners,” Harris said.

Copeland said the commission could face federal intervention if nothing is done about the situation.

“We’re at the point where we’re not going to be given a choice,” Copeland said. “We’re either fixing to have to do this now on our terms or under a federal mandate that’s going to cost us more in the long run.”

District 3 Commissioner Jimmy Barron could not be reached for comment.