Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Opinion: Reasons to VOTE NO on the Houghton County Justice Center

By George Dewey*

Reason #1 -- It is TOO BIG: the proposed size of 110 beds is not justified.

The data provided by the Justice Center Committee does not support the projections of needed jail size. The data used by the Committee to estimate needed capacity in 2040 uses total Jail and Work Camp population since 1990. In projecting need, every other county in the UP used data since 1996. If Houghton County uses the same range of data as the other UP Counties, the projected need is much smaller.

Using inmate data (both jail and workcamp) since 1996 (same as other counties), the projected average daily inmate population in Houghton County in 30 years is under 60 inmates. If 60 is multiplied by 1.25 to account for classification (male/female), peaking, and maintenance -- a reasonable size jail would be closer to 80 total including work release (since work release numbers were used in the original projections).

The Committee notes that the current county budget will not cover the expected costs of operating the new jail complex. It is possible that the jail is intentionally oversized to provide income from renting out beds to adjacent counties to cover the increased operating costs. If the jail serves adjacent counties as expected, it in effect becomes a regional jail financed by Houghton County taxpayers.

Reason #2 -- It is TOO EXPENSIVE

The cost estimates do not tell the entire story. Borrowing $15 million over 30 years will require taxpayers to pay a total of $15 million in interest over the life of the bonds (assuming interest at 5.5 percent for 30 yrs). The total project cost over 30 years is closer to $30 million.

For a home worth $100k, the expected yearly tax increase is projected to be $44.40 -- so over the thirty-year life of the bonds, the total tax assessment would be $1,333. If your house is worth $50,000, your total tax assessment would be $667; and, if your home or business property is worth $200k, your total tax assessment over the life of the bonds would be $2,664. Business owners and landlords will pass along this new tax, so renters will also pay for this tax increase.

A recent Daily Mining Gazette poll asked readers if "we should increase taxes to avoid laying off teachers." By an overwhelming majority, readers rejected the idea of raising taxes to avoid laying off teachers. Asking Houghton County residents to raise their taxes to build a new jail but not raise taxes to avoid laying off teachers seems like the wrong priority. Asking Houghton County residents to increase their taxes in a time of such financial uncertainty does not make sense!

Reason #3 -- It is the WRONG LOCATION for a Large Regional Jail.

The county should seriously consider creating a regional jail at Camp Kitwen. Many other counties in the UP have similar needs for updated jail facilities. Camp Kitwen has a large bed capacity and would cost less than the current jail proposal. Considering facility costs (the state owes $5 million in Bonds), and remodeling costs (Houghton County jail consultant estimated $5.5 million remodeling costs to convert Camp Kitwen to a jail) -- a regional jail at Camp Kitwen would cost less to build than a new regional jail in central Houghton (Sourcebook, p. 9 -- "The proposed Justice Center is planned and sited to provide a range of future options for regional partnerships, with Houghton County as the lead partner"). The proposed plan shows a jail complex spanning over 1 ½ city blocks with plans for expansion. (Sourcebook, p. 5 -- "It is possible, if not likely, that other counties would be interested in boarding inmates in the new jail as space is available. The proposed Justice Center is sited and designed to facilitate efficient future expansion"). The idea of regional jail in central Houghton that could eventually span two entire city blocks does not make sense!**

The additional operating costs for a Camp Kitwen regional jail that were noted in the Sourcebook could be covered by income generated by renting beds to other UP counties in need of additional jail space. The jobs created by this regional jail facility would help replace some of the local jobs lost when Camp Kitwen closed.

Editor's Notes:
* The author of this article, George Dewey, is a Houghton resident.

** Click here to access the Houghton County Justice Center Committee Sourcebook.

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