Chester Co. to vote on penny tax

CHESTER -- Chester County leaders hope that by charging a penny more in sales tax, they can keep the county jail open.

As first reported at heraldonline.com, county leaders announced during a Monday night County Council meeting that they plan to place a 1-cent sales tax proposal on the November ballot. The money would pay for upgrades to the county jail.

Both the state Department of Corrections and the state Fire Marshal's Office have told the county that if leaders don't make improvements to the jail by next year, the facility will be shut down.

"They've got a gun in our back," Chester County Supervisor Carlisle Roddey said of the state's demands.

Roddey estimated the jail improvements would cost at least $6 million, and building a new jail would cost $20 million. The county can't borrow the money for the project because the amount exceeds the debt limit set by state law.

But closing the jail would be extremely expensive, leaders said, because the county would be forced to pay for sending and housing inmates at other facilities.

"A fortune," is how Roddey described that price, but he didn't know a specific amount.

Inmates could be moved as far as 100 miles away, Roddey said, depending on who has room.

The jail, which is part of the county sheriff's office on Dawson Drive, has been failing state inspections for about 17 years, said Chester County Sheriff Robby Benson, who was not at the council meeting.

The portion of the facility that needs improving holds inmates who have not been sentenced, Benson said. That area was built in 1974 and lacks a sprinkler system, an addition that alone would cost $250,000, Benson said.

Although state officials issued the compliance order 18 months ago, Benson said this is the first election year since then county leaders could get the sales tax increase on the ballot.

After a closed session, the council voted Monday night to bring back an architect who had previously drawn some plans for the jail. County officials hope their efforts will persuade state officials to extend the deadline.

They also don't want to burden county taxpayers with the entire project.

"The good thing about a 1-cent (increase) is a good percentage of it gets paid by people from other places," County Councilman Alex Oliphant said after the meeting. "It's the only way. ... This is something that's been coming for a long time."

But the project might be a hard sell with residents.

In 2002, county voters rejected a 1-cent sales tax proposal to pay $7.4 million over six years. About $2 million would have been used for improvements at the county jail.