6 Questions to Ask About the Proposed Sales Tax Increase for Jail Expansion

Should we raise our sales tax by 1 percentage point in order to fund the construction and operations of a jail expansion or new jail?

This is likely the most important decision before the Board and the public in years.

Tomorrow (Thursday 6/13) night we’ll have the first of what will likely be multiple community meetings to discuss this critical issue.

On Thursday evening, I want us to wrestle with 6 questions:

#1 – What is the goal of expanding the jail?

Without specifically articulating our goal, it is difficult to know what alternatives may or may not be better. I get that this may seem obvious, but it’s likely only obvious at a non-specific level. The more specific we get here, the better we can determine what alternatives may work equally well.

 

#2 – What is the right size jail for our community?

It seems that the general consensus is that we need a bigger jail, but how much bigger has varied a lot based on what leaders thought may be possible to fund. Can we figure out how big a jail we think we need so we have a real goal to work towards vs. trying to build a facility of whatever size we think we can muster?

 

#3 – Will a bigger jail reduce crime? If so, is it the most cost-effective way to reduce crime?

This too may seem obvious, but do we have data to support our assumption? I’ve looked at the relationship between the number of people in our jail and crime rates – I’ll show you what I’ve found Thursday evening. A bigger jail may cut crime, but what if we could spend 10% of the cost to build and operate a new jail and get the same reduction in crime?

 

#4 – Are there ways to reduce or divert the current jail population that would free up space in the jail?

Currently, we use the jail as a kind of blunt-force solution for anyone who does something wrong in the community. This makes sense to a certain extent because it is often the only effective accountability tool to get people to change their behaviors. But what if certain groups of people would respond better to other interventions they could receive outside the jail? Then we could save jail space and get better outcomes.

 

#5 – Are there ways to get more jail beds without building more jail beds?

Building new facilities in this economy is challenging, so if we can avoid ground-up builds, we may be able to save significant money. Are there existing jails or prisons with excess capacity? Are there buildings in Shasta County that could be repurposed?

 

#6 – Are there other ways to pay for a bigger jail?

County administrative staff told us “no” a few weeks ago, and I appreciate the County being upfront with us about what is possible and what is not. At the same time, would our funding options change if we changed the timeframe in which we were trying to complete the project or we changed the type of facility we were trying to build or we built the facility in stages?

 

You may feel that asking these basic questions is taking us backward: “We’ve been talking about this for years. Let’s just do something.”

I appreciate the desire for action and I wouldn’t be asking these questions if I felt the Board was considering a solid set of options. However, when the only real option is raising taxes, and attempts to raise taxes have failed multiple times in the last decade, and the current board majority has already said they personally won’t support it, let’s be honest: what we currently have is dead on arrival unless a champion or multiple champions emerge to promote this in the community.

We need to reopen the exploration of alternatives. I don’t currently have the answers to all these questions, but I am convinced that if we pursue these answers, we’ll discover other more compelling options and get clearer about what we want as a community – or determine that a sales tax increase is the best option. If that is where this process lands, then I’ll be happy to get behind it.

I hope you’ll come out tomorrow night to help me begin to answer these questions. Invite your friends, family members, and neighbors.

Whether you can join tomorrow night or not, let me know what you think by answering this quick poll.