Published on -5/12/2013, 3:53 PM
Decision time is at hand for the multiple expansion and renovation projects Ellis County commissioners wish to pursue. By the time polls close Tuesday for the special election to raise $14.3 million with a half-cent sales tax, elected officials will know whether or not local residents support the plan.
There appears little doubt much of what has been identified is needed -- and not merely a wish list drawn up by multiple space needs committees over the years. Included for voters' consideration is constructing a new EMS/rural fire building as well as expanding and renovating the county jail, Law Enforcement Center and the courthouse. The 0.5-percent sales tax would be in place for five years, or shorter if revenues generated allow the project to be completed before then.
This marks the third time in 11 years the county has approached voters with some of the same items. The previous two elections were landslide defeats. Commissioners are cautiously optimistic the third time will be the charm. They at least don't have competing city projects on the same ballot as they did in the past.
The road to Tuesday's special election wasn't without its own speedbumps. The date itself changed, as did whether to have one or two questions on the ballot. The commission opted for a single question. Even earlier was the question of including the renovations at 601 Main and 718 Main, which eventually were pulled out of the mix.
What's left is expensive -- and some quite necessary.
The lion's share of the project ($8.5 million) would pay for the jail, LEC and courthouse.
The current 30-inmate capacity is woefully inadequate, as the average daily population is almost double that number. Housing the overflow inmates in neighboring jails cost the county almost $164,000 last year, a figure that doesn't include salaries or travel costs. Increasing the jail's capacity to 84 also would remove the ever-present threat of lawsuits for having overcrowded conditions.
The LEC could use more space as well. Any time rooms the size of closets are used for interrogations or meetings between inmates and attorneys, there is a problem. The work flow is more than makeshift in its current state.
The courthouse is an entirely different proposition. Much has been made about the inherent dangers of having the public comingling with the jail population. As it's not unusual to walk past an orange jumpsuit-clad inmate on the way to the clerk's office, that concern is real.
However, it will disappear as soon as the administrative offices are moved to the Commerce Bank building the county already purchased. Design plans have a second-floor walkway as well as a new entryways being built. Once the courthouse building is being used solely by law enforcement and the courts, it strikes us that such items would not be necessary. And, in fact, some of the vacated offices might be repurposed for at least some of the space needed for the LEC.
As for the EMS/rural fire building, this should be a no-brainer. Call volume has increased 7 percent to 8 percent annually for the past 20 years. The number of public safety personnel needed 24/7 to service the entire county likewise has skyrocketed.
To its credit, the county has ramped up staffing and vehicles to appropriate levels. But now those emergency vehicles can't even be packed without pulling them out of the cramped quarters. Valuable time is lost just getting the correct vehicle out of the garage, and 41 staff members now occupy the same space that 11 used to squeeze into. The $3.8 million needed for this expansion is long overdue.
But as an all-or-nothing project, we find this one hard to support -- even with extremely favorable interest rates as they are.
We favor both the jail and the EMS/rural fire station, which together are estimated to cost $7.3 million. We could even support another $2 million or so to remodel other areas. At this point, however, we are not convinced all of the pieces have been identified to maximize efficiency and utility in the Commerce Bank building, the partially vacated courthouse and the new additions on the Law Enforcement Center.
If Ellis County commissioners have the current project rejected by voters Tuesday, they should not attempt to force the issue by raising property taxes as was threatened. Instead, they should downsize and streamline the project and reintroduce it on another sales tax measure.
All things considered, we believe the fourth time will be the charm.
Editorial by Patrick Lowry