Whether Chester County decides to fix its current jail or build a new one, an additional penny sales tax appears to be a sensible way to pay for the project.
There is no question that the county needs to either upgrade its jail or build a completely new one. Both the state Department of Corrections and the state Fire Marshal's Office have informed the county that without improvements by December 2009, the jail will be shut down.
If the jail were to close, the county would be forced to send its pre-trial inmates to other facilities, some as far as 100 miles away. And the county would foot the bill.
The county, which has been aware of the need to upgrade the jail for years, has used stopgap measures to keep state officials at bay. When the Department of Corrections threatened to shut down the jail in 2001 because of overcrowding, the county built a 7,100-square-foot prison camp for inmates who have been sentenced.
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But the original detention center that now holds only inmates who haven't been sentenced -- the one council members now want to renovate -- has failed state inspections for about 17 years. In 2002, the county tried to persuade voters to approve a 1-cent sales tax proposal to fund the start-up of a new jail. Of the estimated $7.4 million in proceeds over six years, about $2 million would have been earmarked for the new jail. But voters rejected the proposal.
On Monday, County Council members decided to try the sales tax route again. A penny sales tax proposal will appear on the November ballot.
The county can't borrow the money to make the needed changes because the estimated amount for either upgrading the jail or building a new one exceeds the debt limit set by state law. County officials argue that establishing a 1-cent sales tax with proceeds dedicated to addressing problems with the jail would have the advantage of capturing money from non-residents who spend money in the county.
We agree that this is the most feasible approach to solving the county's jail problems. The alternative of allowing the jail to close is not a reasonable alternative. Money that could be used to improve the jail in Chester County instead would be spent to pay for housing inmates at other facilities.
Chester County leaders are at odds with County Sheriff Robby Benson as to what the best solution to the problem is. Benson asserts that expanding and renovating the Dawson Drive jail won't be enough to satisfy state officials and prevent the jail from closing. County officials have estimated that building a new jail would cost $20 million.
While Benson agrees with the plan to increase the sales tax by a penny, he thinks the only answer is a new jail. He points to holes in the jail's ceiling, lack of a sprinkler system, outdated sewer and electrical systems, and lack of filing space in the existing jail.
But, as County Supervisor Carlisle Roddey noted, the final decision should wait until plans for upgrading the current jail have been completed. At Monday's meeting, the council voted to bring back the architect who previously designed additions for the jail, and Roddey has scheduled meetings with both the architect and the state Department of Corrections.
We agree that the county should consider both options. After renovation plans have been completed, county officials can make a reasoned decision based on factors such as cost, whether a fix-up alone would meet state requirements and how well each option would serve the county's needs for years to come.
Benson may be right in saying that trying to upgrade the current jail is a waste of money. But county officials can't make that decision until architects and Corrections officials have weighed in.
And if the county has to build a new jail by December 2009, it may have to think of more ways to raise money.
Chester County must fix jail or build a new one, and penny sales tax is a good idea.
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