Cities, towns face jail costs, property taxes may increase, if county voters don’t extend jail sales tax

The mental health unit at the Yavapai County jail in Camp Verde. (Max Efrein/Courier)

The mental health unit at the Yavapai County jail in Camp Verde. (Max Efrein/Courier)

It would mean a dramatic loss of millions of dollars if voters do not approve extending the 20-year, quarter-cent sales tax that helps pay to operate the existing Yavapai County jail in the Verde Valley.

About 50 percent of the jail system operating costs, or $8.8 million, would disappear.

Voters will weigh in on the matter by mail-in ballot on May 15. Ballots go out in the mail April 23.

How would the county make up the loss in revenue?

Phil Bourdon, county administrator, said there certainly aren’t many places within the county budget for cuts, should voters fail to extend the jail district sales tax, which expires in 2020.

“We have a couple ways of dealing with that possibility. We can cut back on services or increase property taxes. Those are two areas of flexibility,” Bourdon said.

When voters approved the quarter-cent jail tax in 1999, it also created the Yavapai County Jail District. When the tax sunsets in 2020, the district also goes away, said Capt. Jeff Newnum, Yavapai County jail commander.

“The sales tax only funds about half the jail operations. We will still have to fund that half,” Newnum said.

The loss of $8.8 million that the jail tax brings in equals about 9 to 10 percent of the county general fund. The quarter-cent sales tax revenues are used only for jail operations. “The jail has to be funded one way or another. It’s up to the citizens how they want to do that,” Newnum said.

Impact to cities, towns

A loss of that amount would impact municipalities, said Rowle Simmons, chair of the Yavapai County Board of Supervisors, at the Feb. 7 board meeting.

“If the jail tax extension doesn’t pass, we’re going to have real issues, especially as it pertains to municipalities,” Simmons said.

The county would charge each city and town the associated cost of caring for their jailed residents.

Those expenses include a $330 booking fee that covers administrative duties for intake and the first 24-hour period of the inmate’s stay. After that, municipalities would be charged about $130 to $180 per day, Newnum said.

Funding and expenses

for the Yavapai County jail

“That only brings in about $2 million to $3 million per year as projected. The rest of $8.8 million will be made up by the general fund,” he said.

The courts and law enforcement take up about 50 percent of the general fund spending budget, Bourdon said. “We can’t just shut parts of the jail down,” he said.

2000-2020 tax

A misconception held by some who remember when voters approved the sales tax nearly 20 years ago, is that the tax was meant to construct the new jail, and was not to be used for operating and maintenance.

Bourdon said the 1999 ballot language specified the money would be to “construct, operate and maintain” the jail.

So was the 20-year tax expected to go away in 2020? Not necessarily, he said.

“It’s not uncommon for the Board of Supervisors to put on ‘20 years’ as a good faith effort, to show you’re a good steward of money. The intent was to bring it back to the public to look at it, not to end it,” he said, adding that annual maintenance, repairs and upgrades are a necessary part of operating a jail.

Population increase

Although the jail has a 515-inmate capacity, it averages 579. Newnum said he has to staff the jail at that rate as long as that average continues.

The county, however, has experienced about a 10 percent growth rate per year, which correlates to the 10 percent increase per year in the jail population.

About 13 to 17 percent of revenue from the jail district sales tax comes from tourists who live outside of Yavapai County.

That is equivalent to the number of out-of-county inmates, Newnum said. “It kind of offsets the costs of people coming into the jail from Phoenix or elsewhere.”

He also mentioned the highly successful diversion, mental health and substance abuse programs available to inmates pre- and post-trial. Most are grant-funded and have helped tremendously with a decrease in the inmate population. Some of the grants will expire around the same time the jail sales tax ends.

“I can’t say they (programs) will go away, but they will be impacted,” Newnum said.

Revenue from the commissary and video visitation goes straight back into programs for the inmates such as GED preparation, special education teachers, an inmate services coordinator, services for substance abuse, and Moral Recognition Therapy.

Newnum reiterated that the special programs mostly are for first, second and third misdemeanor, nonviolent offenders who are not a threat to the public.

“Those are the ones we are trying to help at earliest possible point to defer and help be successful with sobriety and healthy living. We do have the serious felony offenders who need to be here and that need to go to DOC (Department of Corrections),” he said.

Bourdon said, after meeting with members of the Citizens Tax Committee in which he explained the ramifications of ending the tax, the members were all on board with voting for the extension.

“We have decided to support the continuation of the jail tax. We see the need as it relieves the cities and towns from having to pay for each individual prisoner,” said Chris Kuknyo, chair of the Citizens Tax Committee.

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