County jail tax hike looms large

The current Camp Verde jail has 600 beds. The new jail would house 300 more and be open around 2019. VVN/Bill Helm

The current Camp Verde jail has 600 beds. The new jail would house 300 more and be open around 2019. VVN/Bill Helm

PRESCOTT - Yavapai County officials will ask voters in November's general election to double the county's jail district sales tax to a half-cent so the county can build a new Prescott jail.

A majority of the five-man Yavapai County Board of Supervisors voiced strong support for the sales tax increase Monday during a board meeting, although the board has not yet officially voted on the ballot question. Voters have to approve jail district sales tax increases.

Board of Supervisors Chair Rowle Simmons said he wants to vote on the resolution as soon as possible.

"We need to get the word out...and that takes time," he said.

The supervisors sounded convinced the jail is necessary.

"One way or another, we'll be building a new jail," Supervisor Chip Davis said.

But without a sales tax increase, county officials warned the construction of a $26 million jail will require massive general fund cuts because state law limits property tax increases to minimal levels.

County visitors pay about one-third of the sales tax, County Administrator Phil Bourdon estimated.

If the county sticks to its existing quarter-cent sales tax, it will have to maximize property taxes and still face a $1.5 million to $2.5 million annual shortfall in the jail budget, Bourdon estimated. And the tax expires in 2020.

The current Camp Verde jail has 600 beds. The new jail would house 300 more and be open around 2019. It would be built on county land near the intersection of Prescott Lakes Parkway and Highway 89, close to the juvenile detention center.

"We are at capacity, and I think the board is making the right decision," Sheriff Scott Mascher said after Monday's meeting.

The supervisors must decide the exact wording of the ballot question by July 21.

They've been discussing asking voters to authorize a 20-year half-cent tax, Bourdon said. That's the maximum jail tax the state authorizes, although there isn't a state limit on the time period.

The current sales tax produces about $7 million of the jail's $15.7 million annual budget. The county also must contribute a "maintenance of effort" amount roughly equal to its pre-district jail costs plus inflation, which added up to about $7 million this year.

Voters approved the current quarter-cent sales tax in 1999 in exchange for a 10-cent drop in the county's property tax. The county completed the Camp Verde jail for $17 million in 2003.

By 2008 the county already was struggling to support jail costs, adding an extra $3.8 million from the general fund and then another $3.4 million the following year, Bourdon recounted. The county and its jail population were soaring.

Voters rejected a Yavapai County Jail District sales tax increase in November 2008.

The county closed its Prescott jail in the spring of 2009 to slash costs. It also was facing federal pressure for structural improvements.

But the closure drastically increased the costs for Prescott-area municipalities that suddenly had to drive prisoners 45 miles to Camp Verde.

At least 60 percent of the jail's prisoners come from the Prescott side of the mountain, Mascher said. The county spends nearly $1 million annually just to transport prisoners back and forth to Prescott courts, he said.

Shortly after taking office in June 2011 when Sheriff Steve Waugh quit, Sheriff Mascher reopened a small portion of the Prescott jail for 24/7 booking and transport.

Various county departments have instituted programs to reduce jail populations and the recession temporarily lowered the criminal population, officials said, but the jail is now reaching capacity.

"It looks like we probably exhausted about every innovative idea," Davis said.

Reopening the old Prescott jail is not a good option, Mascher said. It could house only about 130 beds and its design is so outdated and inefficient that he estimates he could staff a new 300-bed jail with only 15 percent more people than it would take to staff the old Prescott jail.

Mascher is happy with the Camp Verde jail design and would like to use the same one in Prescott. It features 120-bed pods and there's room for at least one more pod. With advances in technology, the Prescott pods could hold 150 prisoners, Mascher estimated. It will cost an estimated $6 million annually to operate.

While the Camp Verde jail technically holds 600 prisoners, it's really more like 500 because the county isn't allowed to put lower-level prisoners in the maximum security pod that has the fewest capacity problems, Mascher said.

Supervisor Tom Thurman said some constituents have asked him why the county can't build a tent city for prisoners like Maricopa County's.

"We truly don't have a population large enough to set up tents," Mascher said. Maricopa has about 3,000 minimum-security inmates in its tents, he said. The staff costs aren't less, he said, and Maricopa often gets sued over the conditions, Thurman said.

Follow Joanna Dodder on Twitter @joannadodder


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