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Democrats on the Mercer County Board Want to Hire More Jailers and Dispatchers

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Why does Dave Staley refuse to debate George Howard?

Why does Democrat candidate for Mercer County Sheriff Dave Staley refuse to debate the Republican candidate George Howard?

Three times now Mr. Staley has refused: in Preemption on September 9; in New Boston on September 30; and, most recently, on October 13 in Aledo.

The Independent candidate Leo Henderson also refuses to debate.

Mercer County residents want to know.

Photo of Joe Vann

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

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In the jailhouse now

Do you remember that jail addition that was supposed to make money for the county?

Well, not so much.

The financial health of the county has actually gone from bad to worse.

And according to the certified audit, the jailhouse amounts to 70 percent of the county’s worsening finances over the past two years.

In fact, if it weren’t for the money the county brought in from disposing of its hospital, nursing home and airport (which is a tale in itself), the county would be another $2.7 million short. Can anyone spell “bankruptcy?”

Now the original financing agreement for the jail addition allowed for the possibility of it going back to the bank. We will forestall retelling the unpretty tale of how we got to this point, but let it be said that now that we’re here, no one relishes the prospect of losing what we’ve already invested. Nevertheless, the possibility is very real, and there is such a thing as cutting one’s losses, so this “escape clause” offers some protection to the county property taxpayers – they won’t necessarily be stuck with sky-high taxes to pay for an empty jail. Should the worst happen, what’s the bank going to do with an empty jail addition? Why would the bank not seek some arrangement not unfavorable to the county.

Refinancing should save more than a half-million dollars in total costs for the jail addition. Savings are good, right? Not so fast. The new financing agreement gives no possibility of withdrawal. In real terms, that opens the very genuine probability that property taxes in Mercer County will rise – with the possibly that they will rise dramatically.

What the Republicans, led by Ted Pappas, are proposing is a policy that basically amounts to this: Make the jail expansion pay for itself – if it is more than paying for itself, then put some of that extra aside, either for times when it may not do so well, or if enough money accrues, for paying off the jail faster; if the jail expansion is coming short of paying for itself, then cut expenses in order to lessen the losses. This is a businesslike model, and it offers about as much protection as is possible for the Mercer County property owner, and includes incentive for making the most use of the jail addition.

What the Democrats, led by Dan Schroeder and Jeff McWhorter, are proposing is that property taxes be raised to make up for any deficiency in paying for the jail. Period. There is no policy to protect the taxpayer from footing the bill and no incentive for making the most use of the jail addition. They have actually argued passionately that the jail addition must remain fully staffed even when it stands empty. This is a going-out-of-businesslike model.

The Democrats have tossed about some numbers, and one must wonder whether they are confused themselves, or whether they seek to confuse others. One thing is certain: Their numbers are a tangled mixture of payments and periods and assertions and assumptions.

This is what the auditor says in his report:
All proceeds from nursing home, hospital and airport have gone to basically keep the county running.
In 2012, there was a $460,000 combined net operating loss for the county. The jail lost $594,949.
In 2013, there was a $900,000 combined net operating loss for the county. The jail lost $356,980.
The jail accounts for 70 percent of loss for 2012 and 2013 combined.

We can look at it all this way:
The old lease for the jail has an escape clause – a “get-out-of-jail-free” card.
The new lease holds us all captive in the county jail with no possibility of parole.
We’re being offered a half-million-dollar bribe to take the new lease.

To Mercer County property holders we say:

Without Ted’s protection policy, don’t take the bribe, or we may all end up in the jailhouse serving a 17-year sentence.

There once was a county named Mercer,
Whose finances got worser and worser.
The donkeys all say,
Make the taxpayers pay.
But the elephants have one more verser.

This plan gathers dust on the shelf:
“The jail should pay for itself.”
What an idea,
We all should agree-a.
But to donkeys this seems much too tough.

We suggest you contact your two county board members to let them know what you think.

Harvey Bluedorn
New Boston

Republican Organizations

School board did well

Letter to the Editor
May, 2014

Congratulations are in order for the Mercer County Board of Education.

At the special meeting on April 29, the Mercer County Board of Education agreed to a compromise funding solution that will replace the bleachers at the high school and junior high without an additional tax levy. Health and safety bonds will be issued, but will be paid off in three years with revenue from the 1 percent sales tax passed in March.

Now it is up to us, the taxpayers, to ensure that every year they inform the county treasurer NOT to levy for these bonds. As more than 10 percent of my gross annual income goes directly to property taxes, we taxpayers cannot afford another fiasco like the “profit-making” jail expansion or the “million dollars in property tax savings” from giving away the nursing home.

Joe W. Vann III
New Boston

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Safeguards needed in jail refinancing

Letter to the Editor
May, 2014

Ted Pappas, vice chair of the Mercer County Board and chair of the board’s Finance Committee, has been working diligently to get the new jail addition refinanced, which should save Mercer County taxpayers $500,000 over the next several years. However, there is one particular problem. As it stands, this refinance deal doesn’t have any safeguards to protect the Mercer County taxpayer.

Back when they built the jail, we were promised two things:

1) The jail would “pay its way.” The Mercer County taxpayer would NOT be saddled with the mortgage payment (by way of property tax increases). The monthly mortgage payment would be covered by the monthly income from housing out-of-county prisoners (both federal and from other counties).

2) If the jail ended up being an operational problem, the Mercer County Board could choose not to appropriate payment to the Public Building Commission, which would return the jail to the trustee, US Bank.

Well, the jail has been holding well UNDER the number of prisoners per day that are needed in order to cover costs, let alone make a profit. The Muscatine County Jail (just across the river in Iowa), which was built at the same time as the Mercer County Jail, now competes with Mercer for federal prisoners. There are also other Illinois counties which compete with Mercer for out-of-county prisoners. And to top it off, once the Thompson Federal Prison is finished, the question is whether Mercer will get any federal prisoners at all.

The new jail addition opened two years ago. Since its opening, it has been fully staffed for its maximum 102-bed occupancy, but in the past two years, the only time the jail was self-sustaining (held enough prisoners to “break even” — 71 occupants per day is the “break-even” number) was from June through December 2013. Except for this seven-month period of time, the jail has not paid for itself, although it still remains at full staff. Where did the money come from in order to operate the jail the rest of the time? Where do you think the money from the sale of the hospital, the nursing home and the airport went?

So, if the jail can’t “pay its way” each month, who is going to make future mortgage payments? You guessed it! The Mercer County taxpayer will pay by means of a property tax increase, unless, of course, a safeguard is inserted into this refinance package. If the refinance goes through as presented, those two promises previously made would be REMOVED.

Ted Pappas has put together a MERCER COUNTY JAIL REFINANCE POLICY which would protect the Mercer County taxpayers. He will be calling or the following policy to be adopted by the Finance Committee:

“Should the direct revenue for the jail fall below the direct expense for the jail, such as salaries, benefits, food, medicine, transportation, principal and interest payment, the sheriff would be directed by the Mercer County Board to cut the jail expense budget to the level of revenue received from the prior year. This policy would ensure that neither the property owners of Mercer County nor the other essential County departments would bear the responsibility of paying for the jail operations.”

The policies of the past county board and elected officials have gotten us into this predicament. How can we trust the same people to get us out of it? If we don’t do something now, this boondoggle will be paid for on the back of the taxpayer.

We urge all Mercer County residents to talk to their County Board members and let them know what you think.

Laurie Bluedorn
New Boston