PASCO -- Are Franklin County residents willing to spend 30 more cents on a $100 purchase to pay for a county jail expansion officials say is badly needed?
That's a question voters will answer in the Nov. 8 general election, now that Franklin County commissioners authorized a ballot measure for a 0.3 percent criminal justice sales tax.
The proposal commissioners unanimously approved Thursday would set the sales tax increase for 30 years if a simple majority of voters approve it.
Commissioners decided to move forward with a criminal justice sales tax ballot measure after estimates by LCA Architects in Seattle showed the county's portion of a 0.2 percent sales tax would bring in enough to construct the expanded jail.
Franklin County would receive 60 percent of a voter-approved criminal justice sales tax, with the remaining 40 percent distributed to Pasco, Connell, Kahlotus and Mesa, based on their populations.
The county wants to save its portion of the other 0.1 percent to help pay for the increased operational costs of the new jail.
"If the voters decide to move forward on it, we can complete the project and operate the jail at the same time," said County Administrator Fred Bowen.
A 30-year sales tax bump would bring in about $17.8 million for the construction of the jail, Bowen said.
That's about $500,000 more than the $17.3 million estimate for the remodel and expansion, if two of the six pods were "shelled," in which the exterior is finished but the interior work is postponed, said county documents. Each pod would include eight rooms, with a total of 32 beds.
Bowen said the county could end up building the entire jail and finishing all the pods if the bid prices came in low enough. It could cost about $500,000 to prepare a "shelled" pod for occupancy.
After the project, the jail would have a total of 335 beds, Bowen said. If the two pods are shelled, that would mean 271 beds. The plan is to return the current jail to about 89 maximum-security beds.
The design for the expanded jail is a two-tiered building with cellblocks arranged in a wheel around a small area where the overhead master control booth hangs. An officer inside it would control the interlocked doors and monitor the cells by sight and video. With that design, two officers could monitor that portion of the jail, Bowen said.
The kitchen and laundry area would be expanded and work release would move from a portable back into the jail, Bowen said. Jail administration would be moved to the expansion, and the booking area would grow to 24 beds available in holding cells.
The expansion also would have a two-story building in front of it. That could house Pasco Municipal Court on the first floor, if the city decides to participate in the project. And Bowen said the sheriff's office, information services and dispatch would use the second floor.
This is the second time the county has asked voters to approve a criminal justice sales tax measure for a new jail. The first time a sales tax proposal was placed on the ballot, there was no specific project, Bowen said. Both the general sales tax proposal and the 2009 ballot measure failed, with 53 percent voting against the measure.
This jail design is different from the one proposed with the 2009 ballot measure. Moving the sheriff's office, dispatch, information services and Pasco Municipal Court into its own building rather than on top of the expanded jail will save money, and so will having the administration area move into the expansion, Bowen said.
The recession also has helped decrease construction costs, he said.
When the county put together a proposal in 2009, the jail expansion and remodel was estimated to cost about $23.2 million, according to county documents. The most recent estimate would be about $17.3 million for the jail remodel and expansion.
"I believe the project is well thought out," Bowen said.
Pasco Councilman Bob Hoffmann said the need for a new jail is apparent.
"Anybody can see the growth of the county and the city, the age and limited capacity of the current jail," he said.
The question is whether residents are willing to pay to fill that need, Hoffmann said. And that's hard to determine, especially with the weight of the federal debt overshadowing local governments and projects, he said.
The sales tax measure will come up during Monday's Pasco City Council meeting. Pasco City Manager Gary Crutchfield said he already intended to ask council members to discuss whether the city would have a similar position on a criminal justice sales tax measure as it took in 2009.
Then, Pasco planned to use its portion of the sales tax to fund a police station and municipal court space. Crutchfield said that, at the time, estimates showed the city likely would receive just enough revenue from the sales tax to pay for both projects.
Both are needed. The city's lease for its current municipal court in the county's public safety building expires next May, Crutchfield said. So far, the county and city have not come to an agreement on a lease extension.
And the police station is "packed to the gills," he said.
If voters approve the measure, Crutchfield said it also would help solve the long-term space problem at city hall. The new police station would free up space for other departments.
Pasco can't ask for the criminal justice sales tax measure on its own. Crutchfield said the city's only option would be to ask for a property tax increase, which could make it more difficult for the Pasco School District to get voters to fund new schools. Property tax is the school district's only means to fund capital projects.
The Pasco School District's $59 million bond measure that would have paid the local cost of a new middle school, elementary school and early learning center for kindergartners failed earlier this year.
The criminal justice sales tax proposal would add 3 cents to a $10 purchase or $3 to a $1,000 purchase. It wouldn't apply to the sale of motorized farm equipment or vehicles.
Jail Capt. Rick Long said the new jail is a need, not just a want. It's an essential project so the county can continue to jail the people who need to be jailed and keep the community safe.
Commissioner Rick Miller said he hoped voters would see the need for a new jail with the growth of the county's population. The county doesn't want to be in a position where people who should be jailed can't be because of a lack of space, he said.
Crutchfield said it would be a shame to see the dramatic improvement of public safety in Pasco in the past 20 years deteriorates because of an inability to finance a new jail.
-- Kristi Pihl: 509-582-1512; email@example.com