CHESTER -- Will Chester County residents choose a penny sales tax or a property tax increase to save their dilapidated jail?
That's the question voters must answer Tuesday when they go to the polls. The penny sales tax could generate nearly $13 million, of which $11 million would be earmarked to fix the county's 35-year-old jail. The difference will be use for related expenses.
The county's only jail is in desperate need of repair, county leaders said.
"It's basically falling apart," Chester County Sheriff Robby Benson said. "There's problems with the roof, sewage and electrical system."
It also is short on space, so county leaders want to bring the jail up to standard, County Supervisor Carlisle Roddey said. Included in the makeover are additional working space for deputies, who work from four different locations; more inmate cells; and a sprinkler system update, he said.
"We're going in and remodel what we have and build onto it," he said. "Anything that's broke, we're going to fix it."
That won't happen if residents reject the proposal -- a move leaders say they can't afford because the future of the jail depends on it.
"It's failed (state) inspection for 17 years," Fort Lawn Police Chief Richard Smith said of the jail. "The state's had enough."
Time nearly up
The countdown to bring the jail up to code ends next summer: The jail's only saving grace is the referendum, Roddey said.
"If this does not pass, the state will close the jail Aug. 21," he said.
A failed proposal also means residents face a definite property tax increase.
"I'd rather pay out a penny than $100," Roddey said.
But the tax hike will dig still deeper into residents' wallets. County leaders will have to hire at least 10 more officers and purchase about five cars to transport Chester, Great Falls and Fort Lawn inmates. It will cost $500,000 annually to transport inmates and their housing will cost around $2 million a year, Roddey said.
"York County can't take them," Roddey said. "We may have to go as far away as Myrtle Beach or Charleston, anywhere we can find jail space."
There's at least one other problem with transporting prisoners, Smith said.
"It's such a liability transporting people," he said. "It creates more opportunity for escape. It creates more liability in case there's an accident and someone gets hurt or killed."
Another issue with the property tax is its payoff burden is shouldered by residents only, while the penny sales tax applies to anyone who makes purchases in Chester County.
"The penny tax would prevent taxpayers from spending more money down the road to house inmates outside of Chester County," Benson said.
"I hate for anyone to pay additional sales tax, but the one cent sales tax is the lesser of two evils," he said.
Chester resident Jennifer Merritt supports the penny tax.
"I think it's a good idea," said Merritt, a two-year resident. "I moved from York County, and they had the same tax to improve the roads."
Merritt voted for that tax in York County and will support Chester's efforts.
"If they're going to close the jail, we've got to do something," she said. "If they're going to fund it with a penny tax, it seems like a fairly painless way to do it."
If approved, the penny tax would last seven years.