GREENFIELD — Nearly 53 percent of voters who cast ballots Tuesday said they were against a property tax increase to cover construction of a new criminal justice complex. But the Hancock County Council and board of commissioners still can move forward with the proposed $55 million project — and they will, they say.
The referendum may have failed (the final vote was 5,509 against and 4,962 in support), but overcrowding at the Hancock County Jail remains, with population at the facility this week topping 200 — 43 more than it was built to hold.
So, the conversation on how to address the issue must continue; and local leaders say having the election out of the way, and knowing how voters feel about the property tax increase, will only help them finalize a plan for how to move forward. Whether they stick with the current plan or come up with a scaled back — and cheaper — version remains to be seen.
Brad Armstrong, president of the board of commissioners, said in the coming weeks his board will review final design plans for the project, which includes building a new jail and remodeling several existing criminal justice facilities.
He plans to push forward with the current proposal; but said the decision for how to cover the cost will ultimately rest with the county council, which controls all financial decisions.
“We’re going to work cooperatively with the council and figure out what our next steps are,” Armstrong said. “But a lot of what happens next will lie with them.”
The closeness of the referendum vote and the success of certain candidates in Tuesday’s primary shouldn’t be overlooked, commissioners say.
Voters elected two vocal advocates for the jail project: Brad Burkhart was chosen to be the next sheriff and Marc Huber was re-elected to the Hancock County Board of Commissioners (both men are Republicans, and so far neither faces a challenger in November; Democrats have until June 30 to slate a nominee).
It seems residents may support the construction project, even if they were against the proposal to use property taxes to pay for it, Hancock County Commissioner John Jessup said Tuesday after the results were finalized.
“This just means we don’t slow down,” Jessup said.
The county council president, Bill Bolander — who ran unopposed Tuesday to win the GOP nomination — said his board is prepared to discuss other funding options for the construction project.
Members of the county council have said from the start that they wanted to hear from voters before deciding how to pay for the jail. Residents would ultimately have to cover the project’s hefty price tag, and their opinion on the matter needed to be heard, they said.
Now, the board has an array of other funding options at its disposal.
One is raising the county income tax in order to generate enough money to cover bond payments on the project.
A recent law passed by the Indiana General Assembly allows counties to raise income tax rates without special legislation only if the money is earmarked for criminal justice projects.
The new law specifies the tax rate must be done only in increments of 0.01 percent and may not exceed 0.2 percent; and that increase may not be in effect for more than 20 years.
The board could also bond up to $5 million to be paid for by a property tax increase without a referendum, according to state law.
The county can hold another referendum on the project in 350 days.
Had this referendum passed, it would have given the county county the greenlight to increase property taxes about 14 cents on every $100 of assessed value, and would have exceeded any property tax caps.
Construction of a new jail is expected to cost $35 million. Another $20 million will be set aside for soft costs associated with a project of this size, including financing, design and engineering costs.
The proposed construction site is located at the corner of Meek and South streets in Greenfield, to the east of the courthouse annex and north of the Pennsy Trail. Five houses currently sit on the site, and the county would need to purchase and demolish them in order to put the jail there.
Besides building a new jail facility, the project includes the renovation and expansion of other criminal justice facilities.
The prosecutor’s office would be moved to the existing community corrections facility, giving the department space to grow. Community corrections would then move to the current jail, also giving that department the space it needs to expand. The Hancock County Probation Department would move into the basement of the existing jail.