Jail bait

September 7, 2013

There’s no escaping it — a new jail must be constructed to accommodate the growing number of thugs who are terrorizing Robeson County.

County officials are figuring out specifics, such as the design and capacity of the jail, and what county residents will be most interested in — how much the jail will cost and how it will be funded. It will offer a tough choice for all the county commissioners, but especially the four who face re-election in May 2014 — Chairman Noah Woods and Commissioners David Edge, Lance Herndon and Hubert Sealey — with an electorate already angry about their pay and benefits.

Don’t, however, blame the need for a new jail on the commissioners. This is a bad hand they were dealt. A quarter of a century ago, when the current jail was built, it was marketed as a flexible facility that could be expanded to meet a growing inmate population. Turns out that isn’t the case.

The current jail is operating under a cap of 420 beds, forcing the county to ship some prisoners elsewhere at a cost of about $40 a day per inmate. Sheriff Kenneth Sealey believes a jail is needed that could house as many as 600 to 650 inmates.

It doesn’t help that Robeson County’s crime rate is among the highest in the state, and that the rate of violent crime locally is No. 1 in the state.

Commissioner Edge, the chairman of a committee trying to figure it all out, believes it will cost the county more than $40 million to open the new facility. The funding options are limited, and neither is appetizing in an impoverished community where too few share the burden of paying for government services.

According to County Manager Ricky Harris, the money is most likely to come from a property-tax or sales-tax hike.

A sales-tax hike would have to be approved in the General Assembly, an effort that requires the support of local legislators. It was just three years ago, in August 2010, that local residents through a referendum approved a quarter-cent hike in the local sales tax that county officials said was needed to dodge a property tax hike. Voters bit — and this newspaper endorsed the proposal — because a sales tax spreads the pain beyond Robeson County, to visitors who stop to shop or have a bite to eat.

But voters, nor this newspaper, knew then that our county commissioners were among the highest paid and best benefited in the state. Had that information been available, this newspaper would not have endorsed a sales tax increase, and voters would have rejected it.

Harris said if a property-tax hike emerges as the best option, it could be as much as a nickel, which would raise about $3 million a year in additional revenue. Given that the jail is projected to cost as much as $40 million, that tax would be with us for decades.

One thing does work in favor of the current commissioners. May, when the next primary is held, comes before June, when the bad news about taxes will be delivered as the 2014-15 budget is finalized.