Jail Tax Creates Controversy in Okla.
(04/08/2011)

EL RENO, Okla. — The Canadian County sheriff wants a new jail - just not right now.

After two years of lobbying for a new jail, Sheriff Randall Edwards said he hopes voters reject an upcoming proposal that would shuffle sales tax revenue from a juvenile justice center to build and run a new jail.

While a new jail will be needed, Edwards said, the project can wait until it can be funded without funneling money away from the juvenile center.

The proposal is to split the 35-cent sales tax between the jail and the Gary E. Miller Canadian County Children’s Justice Center. The juvenile center would keep 25 cents for operations, and the jail would get 10 cents for construction and operations.

The jail is expected to require $2.8 million a year, said District 2 County Commissioner Dave Anderson. Anderson said $1.6 million would come from the sales tax, and the other $1.2 million would come from the general fund, which is funded by property taxes. As sales revenue increases, the general fund portion would decrease, he added.

Voters have rejected several other proposals seeking funding for a new jail.

Canadian County property values are $800 million - nearly double what they were a decade ago - and sales tax revenue has gone up an average of 9 percent a year during the same time.

Because tax revenue has been so strong, Anderson said the juvenile center has received more than originally expected from the 35-cent tax - enough to pay off the building’s debt early.

The $4.8 million debt will be paid off Jan. 1, leaving the center with a cushion of about $1.3 million, so diverting funds won’t affect day-to-day operations, said Anderson.

Associate District Judge Bob Hughey, who hears juvenile cases, disagrees. Hughey said if the proposal does pass, the cost to the juvenile center would be profound.

County commissioners already have cut juvenile center programs, he said, and a few popular ideas, such as a school truancy program, were abandoned before they could get off the ground.

The center is funded by the dedicated sales tax and contracts with the Office of Juvenile Affairs and the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

Sheriff Edwards said about $300,000 was spent in the past two years to fix the jail. The building was once plagued by leaking pipes, broken locks, crumbling walls and mold.

Overcrowding, he said, remains a problem. The county sends dozens of inmates to jails in other counties.

The jail had three inspections last year after complaints about inmate care. In January, inspectors found evidence of inmates serving food unsupervised and of inadequate delousing of inmates. The jail was also 40 inmates over capacity.

Less than a week later, inspectors returned and discovered that jail’s menus were not approved by a dietitian and that inmates were not receiving prescribed medication. No complaints have been reported since.

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