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A right and proper function of government

Letter to the Editor
May, 2014

The expenditure of county funds to house prisoners awaiting trial in Mercer County and those sentenced in Mercer County is a right and proper function of government. Housing prisoners from other jurisdictions on a space-available basis for a reimbursement to the county exceeding the cost of such a service is a prudent use of available space and an example of good stewardship.

However, the previous board with the assistance and support of the Public Building Commission and the Sheriff’s Office expanded the jail facility far beyond the need of housing county prisoners with the sole expectation of making it self-sustaining and profitable by housing prisoners from other jurisdictions. It was promoted as never becoming a burden on the taxpayer.

The type of bond used in the financing made it possible to give the jail to the bond holders if it proved to be non-self-sustaining. Some moneys have been realized in housing foreign prisoners, but it must be remembered that it took the threat of cutting his budget before Sheriff Thompson finally negotiated a contract with Cook County.

Now, it is feared that the IRS may frown upon the method used to finance the jail expansion as it houses more prisoners-for-profit than Mercer County prisoners. For almost a year, the board and the PBC have worked on acquiring new financing that would not only cost less in interest but not run afoul of the IRS.

However, the new financing would require repayment no matter if the jail was self-staining or run at a significant loss. To prevent cost overruns from jail operations forcing cuts in law enforcement, road maintenance, health department, and every other county agency, the chair of the Finance Committee has proposed a jail policy be adopted whereby, if the jail expansion fails to be self-sustaining in a budget year, the budget for jail operations in the coming year will be limited to the amount received in income the previous year. Money derived in excess of the payments to the PBC and cost of jail operations will be put aside to delay such a budget cut until the funds are exhausted.

This is not to punish the Sheriff’s Office, but to provide an incentive for the sheriff to vigilant pursue contracts with other jurisdictions to ensure our taxpayers are not paying the costs of housing prisoners from other jurisdictions. I urge each of you to contact your two County Board representatives and urge them to support and put in place the prudent and necessary policy prior to refinancing the county jail.

Joe W. Vann III
New Boston