In a process one commissioner likens to “sausage being made in a glass fish bowl,” Platte County commissioners are still working out the major details of their public safety plan, but now say no new tax will go up for public approval in November.
At a more than two hour morning meeting of the commission on Monday, Aug. 20, commissioners heard from members of the public confused and concerned about the news of a new potential sales tax. By the end of the day Monday, commissioners opted to delay placing a public safety/law enforcement sales tax before voters.
First district commissioner Dagmar Wood told the Citizen Monday evening that commissioners will most likely seek approval of a new tax in the April 2019 municipal and board of education election. Auditor Kevin Robinson has been asked to run scenarios on funding options and will meet with commissioners Friday, Aug. 24 to discuss his findings.
Last week, a possible plan to build a 336-bed, $43 million jail facility and sheriff’s office surfaced, much to the surprise of most Platte Countians. This new construction, along with renovation of existing facilities, would be funded by a new dedicated law enforcement sales tax that could have gone up for approval by voters as soon as the Tuesday, Nov. 6 general election. The deadline for placing a sales tax question on the ballot is Tuesday, Aug. 28 but as of Monday commissioners had not yet nailed down an amount or ballot language for any such question.
Wood said the decision to delay a sales tax ballot question until April does give commissioners — and the public — more time to investigate options, including a potential partnership with the City of Kansas City. However, it also delays action on a problem the commissioners say they recently learned was more pressing than previously believed – overcrowding at the county jail.
Commissioners received a concerning report from sheriff Mark Owen at the end of June, Wood said. Increasing populations at the county detention facility have been a concern for years and most recently made headlines in 2013 when a $21 million, 315-bed facility was suggested. In 2014, a commission-appointed committee — of which Wood was a part — found that no immediate expansion was necessary.
Since then, the sheriff’s office was able to renovate and bump the 154-bed detention center to 180 beds, however the average daily population continues to rise. As of press time Tuesday, the detention population was at 194 inmates.
Due to federal mandates, inmates must be separated by age, gender, severity of crime and other factors. These factors make housing inmates tricky, as sheriff’s office staff must follow requirements while also making sure everyone fits. Sometimes, this means inmates sleep in cots on the floor. Further complicating matters are detainees Platte County holds for ICE — Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. While commissioners say there are typically less than 20 ICE detainees in the detention center at any given time, the sheriff’s office has become reliant on the income generated by housing these inmates.
Owen spoke at the Monday meeting, stating he started the current push to deal with this issue after looking into other options. Platte County could enter into contracts with other counties to house prisoners, but most counties capable of taking on more inmates are further out from the metro area — Dekalb and Daviess counties, or even further as populations continued to rise. Not only would the county need to pay a daily fee per prisoner to house prisoners elsewhere, but also would need to add staff and vehicles to transport prisoners back and forth for court appearances.
Very quickly, these cost projections added up to millions per year.
“We would be paying somebody else to house our inmates while we’re spending millions of dollars still trying to build a jail,” Owen said. “That was the reason I was pushing a little bit earlier on in these conversations for urgency — I don’t want to spend three million dollars a year to send them somewhere when we’ve got money we need to be spending at home.”
Last week, commissioners asked Robinson to run projections through 2030 on a sales tax to fund construction of the new jail as well as increased spending on law enforcement. Robinson said the plan would become unsustainable by 2027 and at a meeting held Friday, Aug. 24 commissioners backed away from the construction of a new jail facility and opted to focus on the current jail’s basement, called the “futures” area.
Things changed again over the weekend, however, when Wood spoke to Kansas City council members about the situation. Previously, a concept to partner with Kansas City to build a new facility and house city prisoners fizzled out, but Kansas City has suggested a new plan.
The city could invest up-front capital into a new jail project — estimated at about $15 million during preliminary talks — and in return Platte County would house up to 150 pre-trial city prisoners for at least five years.
Schieber said Monday that this new information was worth investigating, and talks with Kansas City are expected to continue this week.
The entire process so far has attracted public attention, as evidenced by the turnout at the Monday meeting where about a dozen members of the public were in attendance and several spoke out.
Janet Stark, who has long been affiliated with the Platte County Republican Central Committee and active in local politics, told commissioners that even she was surprised by the news. As several members of her family worked in law enforcement and the military, she said she is in favor of law enforcement, but she too was unaware of this situation until it was reported in the local media last week.
“I am grateful that there were meetings this last Friday where the public could go, but I don’t know how many people knew about these meetings,” Stark said. “Sometimes it’s not what you do but how you do it that affects the public.”
The “waffling” she said she has heard between Friday and Monday concerned her, and she and several other audience members said the commission had a communication problem, a sentiment with which Wood later told The Citizen she agrees. She said hopefully delaying a vote will give the public more time to learn about the issues, and allow the commissioners more time to make their intent clear.
To this end, the commission will host its regular Coffee With Commissioners at 8:45 a.m. at the KCI Cracker Barrel prior to its meeting with Robinson later that morning. Both are open to the public.
“I agree with Mr. Park,” Stark said, referencing Democratic candidate for presiding commissioner David Park, who also spoke at the meeting about the need for public input on any potential plan. “I think even before Aug. 28 (which is the deadline to place a tax on the November ballot), maybe instead of Coffee (With Commissioners) this Friday, if you have a meeting at the Platte County Resource Center that more people from the public could come and hear what you propose because this has come so quickly that people haven’t had time to process it.”
As of press time, the commission’s work session is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. Friday, Aug. 24 at the Platte County Resource Center. Any changes to this schedule will be posted at the county website, co.platte.mo.us.