The Knox County Council is looking to reinstate the so-called jail tax in an effort to add on, both to the jail itself and, possibly, to the county's community corrections facility as well.
Council president Bob Lechner said while the jail, built back in 2003, has served the county well, they've simply outgrown it. It was built to house around 200 inmates, but Sheriff Doug Vantlin said it's currently housing nearly 270 men and women.
Even if he kicked out the federal and state inmates being held here — a service that has brought into the county nearly $4 million in revenue since the jail opened, Lechner said — it would still be overpopulated.
And it's not a problem specific to Knox County, Vantlin said, as nearly 40 other Hoosier counties are either in the process of building new jails, expanding the ones they have or in discussions to do one or the other.
The proposal, Lechner said during the council's meeting Tuesday, is to essentially double the size of the jail; the existing pods — one each for general population, individual cells, isolation, etc. — would be mirrored as part of the expansion project. Additional updates, too, would need to be made to the jail's HVAC system, laundry facilities, etc. to keep up.
The jail population continues to climb, Lechner pointed out, so the council has a decision to make — be “proactive” now or “reactive” later.
After much discussion, the council voted to move toward reinstating the “jail tax,” or an increase to the local income tax. This time around, the county is proposing it at a rate of 0.2%, according to county attorney Andrew Porter.
They will hold a public hearing on the proposed tax increase at 5 p.m. on Oct. 24 at City Hall, 201 Vigo St., and in an effort to move swiftly, they plan to vote on the increase that same evening.
To implement the new tax rate on Jan. 1, 2020, the county must approve the ordinance by Oct. 31. If they do so after that date, the increase wouldn't take effect until Oct. 1, 2020.
The money to pay for the new jail came from an increase in the county's Economic Development Income Tax; the legislation, approved in 2003, mandated that it be eliminated once enough money had been collected to retire the debt.
County elected officials promised to pay off the jail early, and early it was paid off. The bonds weren't due to be paid off until 2021, and in the process of paying the debt off early, they saved county taxpayers more than $1 million.
The jail tax, initially set at a rate of 0.25%, was eliminated in 2014 by county elected officials, but the bonds themselves couldn't be paid off until early 2016.
The last step was in handing the deed to the jail over to the county commissioners, which was done in August of that same year.
The county council didn't talk specific cost estimates for the work, but Lechner said the expansion would require more jail bonds to be sold, hence the proposed tax increase.
Council members, for the most part, said they were ready — and even eager — to move forward with the increase and subsequent jail expansion. Not only is the jail currently overcrowded, but more space means more income from housing both state and federal inmates.
That revenue, Lechner pointed out, helps to keep the tax rate lower for residents.
Commission president Kellie Streeter said the commissioners had discussed the expansion at length and were also in favor of it.
“I think we're all three in agreement,” she said. “We understand the issues and the future problems that are possible.
“A solution is necessary,” she said, “and that means building onto the jail.”
County councilman Tim Crowley, a former judge, wants to see more than just a jail expansion, however.
If the county is going to raise the tax rate, he wants to see some of the revenue spent to expand the work release facility, too.
That building is overcrowded as well, he said, and there are waiting lists for both men and women.
As judges continue to look at alternatives to incarceration for low-risk defendants, the county should do its part, he said.
“What's the point of having work release if you don't have a place to put them?” he asked, adding that an expansion there is also “something we should consider.”
The council voted on first reading to increase the local innkeeper's tax rate by 1%. The additional revenue would go specifically to the Grouseland Foundation for upkeep, maintenance and operations at the site, home to former Indiana Territory Gov. William Henry Harrison at 3 W. Scott St.
The General Assembly approved the legislation that paved the way for the 1% increase — it will increase to 6% overall — this spring, and council president Bob Lechner said for the council to not consider the state's actions would be “sending the wrong message.” Councilman David Culp, too, said he'd received no negative feedback about the increase and additional revenue for Grouseland.
There has, however, been some kick back from those who operate the city's other historic sites, specifically in that Grouseland would be singled out and gain additional revenue. They also worried about the tax getting so high, it would discourage local overnight stays.
Crowley abstained from approving the local legislation. He was one of the original authors of the innkeeper's tax legislation, and he said it was meant to “increase tourism, not fund a particular organization.”
Lisa Ice-Jones, the foundation's executive director and a former employee of Crowley's, has said the tax increase would generate for Grouseland upwards of $60,000 per year, or about 30 percent of the organization's annual budget.
To be official, the resolution will require two more readings.