Additional property tax, bond proposed to fund replacement for 135-year-old jail

Local News

WASHINGTON COURT HOUSE, Ohio (WCMH) — Fayette County taxpayers are set to vote on a ballot measure that would allocate $20 million from bonds and an additional property tax to build a new jail, replacing the one first built in 1884.

The Fayette County Jail looks nearly the same as when it was built in tandem with the courthouse 135 years ago. The sounds from the jailhouse are typical. Radio traffic over two-way radios, beeping echoing though the halls as the jailers enter passcodes to open doors as they leave from one section of the building to enter another. The biggest complaints are those who are incarcerated complain about the conditions of their quarters.  

Typically, the prisoners complain about conditions in every jail. But at this one, there may be a legitimate red flag being raised. When I visited the facility to witness the conditions, I heard the same complaints, but from staff and leadership. 

Sheriff Vernon P. Stanforth agreed with the inmates. Stanforth and county commissioner, Dan Dean, are raising the proverbial white flag and are now asking the voters for help. 

“At least once a month we have flooding issues in the jail,” said Stanforth. “The inmates put stuff in the toilets and clog them up and it over flows and it drips down to the next level and to the next level.” 

That leave deputies and staff with the task of cleaning up the mess.  

“Frustrating for the jail administrator,” said Stanforth.

From the perspective of the voter, I mentioned that there are people who say they did the crime they should have to do the time–even if that means living in filth. The sheriff took exception to that. Stanforth explained that people live here and work here. Human beings should be treated humanely.  

“You are asking the employees to suffer the consequences of somebody else’s decision to flood the jail for example,” he explained.

There are other safety issues and health concerns. There are 13 layers of paint throughout the building. When the building was constructed, the paint was lead-based. Plus, there is asbestos insulating a lot of the pipes. Both substances are known to cause cancer in people if they are exposed. 

“Once you disturb that paint by peeling the layers off, then you have a hazmat situation,” said the sheriff.

As for the pipes, he says: “We see a problem, we just run a new line.”  

“It’s not built to accommodate the prisoners for the space needed today,” said Fayette County Commissioner Dan Dean. “We do have an overcrowding problem and we have no ability to do programming for prisoners.” 

That programming would be for rehabilitation to help with addiction and mental health situations.  Dean said 90 percent of the people incarcerated here have drug related offenses. 

Basically, to work or live in the building has health and safety concerns for the deputies, jailers, and prisoners. Rehabilitating the 135-year-old structure poses environmental issues with lead paint and asbestos.  

According to Dean, the administration uses every bit of space in the building. The Chief Jailer, David Bivens, showed me around the place. Boxes holding records cram the hallways on the second floor. This is the part of the building that used to be the sheriff’s housing area. The basement is jam-packed with dry food storage, and the jail cells are at capacity with prisoners.  

The people incarcerated there di have a place to sleep, shower, and use the restroom. There is one television for the men and one for the women. The jail has two isolation cells with no TVs.  

Remarkably, what the jail is not equipped with are electronic doors that open and shut from a control room. The infrastructure of the jail is from the 19th century. All indoor plumbing, electricity, phone and other modern technologies are installed along the walls. The guards use a huge looping key chain filled with keys, some of them are from 100 years ago. Some of the doors locking mechanisms no longer work, and padlocks are being used to secure certain areas.  

There is a proposed bond and levy for the Fayette County Jail to build new facilities, to the tune of a total $20 million. The cost would be 1.05 mills for 40 years. Plus, there is an operating levy for .85 mills starting in 2020 that would run indefinitely. Here’s how the tax works per $100,000 assessment. The 1.9 mills looks like this .0019. Multiply that times 100,000, or the amount your home his assessed. You can find that information at the county auditor’s website. There is a discount of 35 percent on the assessed value. To figure this, you then multiply that total by .35 or 35%. The equation will look like this: 

                   Appraised          Assessed 

Mills     x     Value           x     Value     =     total tax 

.0019   x  $100,000        x      35%       =     $66.50.  

You can read the exact wording at the Fayette County Board of Elections website on the 100-Day Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot

Should the ballot measure pass, this would be the second time that the taxpayers have funded a new jail. The first time took place in the late 1800s. According to a book published in 1914, History of Fayette County, Ohio edited by Frank Allen, in 1881 the county commissioners questioned, “Shall we build a courthouse by tax, and shall we build a jail by tax?” This was the first consideration to build a county jail and fund it through taxes. On page 108, the book shows a photo of the Fayette County Courthouse and jail from 1888 by Henry Howe.  

The project is ready. County leaders determined that 130 beds are needed 

“This should accommodate the county for the next 30 years,” said Dean. “The county was fortunate enough last year to get a guarantee from the USDA for a low rate loan.” 

Dean explained that the loan is for $20 million and to be repaid during the next 20 years with no early repayment penalty. He estimates this will save the county nearly $10 million in interest compared to issuing general revenue bonds.  

“The caveat to that is we must get this bond and levy passed this year,” said Dean. 

Below is a list of a few other Ohio counties in the region that have built new jails. 

-In Warren County, Ohio, the current jail began operating in 2001. Now the county commissioners are finalizing a $50 million expansion for a new jail. 

-Coshocton County’s jail was built in 1974 and the commissioners there have been toying with the idea of building a new facility.  

-Franklin County’s new jail should open later this year. The sheriff’s office currently operates two jails: one that opened in downtown Columbus in 1969 and s downtown and the other on Jackson Pike that was built in the 1990s. When the new jails two phases are completed, the two current jails are expected to be closed. 

-The Butler County Jail in Southwestern Ohio opened in 2002. The jail prior to that was built in 1969 and quickly was overpopulated. The Sheriff Office began making appropriation through various organization and group before it began building the current jail in 2000. Since then, the jail has gone under one restoration project in 2012. 

The ballot measure will be voted on in the May 7, 2019 election in Fayette County. 

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