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Debate Continues Over One-Eighth Cent Tax Proposal for Law Enforcement

(Photo credit: KSMU)

[Sound:  Jail doors closing, voices rising]

Inside the “B Pod” at the Greene County jail, scores of inmates, many facing charges of sexual assault, drug possession, and robbery, are sitting at tables playing cards or standing around talking in an open, concrete room. A few feet away stands one corrections officer. It’s his job to keep order while keeping himself safe. By all accounts, this jail is bursting at the seams.  On this day, there are 105 inmates in this pod alone…but it only has 96 beds. The extras sleep on the floor. And the corrections officers know they’re understaffed, putting them at a higher risk for injury.

“Yesterday, we had 30 inmates who we had to send out of county, because we had, I think, a population  yesterday of about 575 in a jail that’s really designed for 500, has a fire marshal rating of 522,and is staffed for 485,” said Dan Patterson, prosecuting attorney for Greene County. He’s taken the lead in supporting the 1/8 cent tax proposal.

Patterson says the crowded jail is just a symptom of the greater problems facing Greene County’s criminal justice system. The courts are seriously backlogged, leading to longer jail times, and the county is paying about 30 thousand bucks a month to house prisoners in other counties.

What’s more, Patterson says the Sheriff’s deputies out on patrol are stretched far too thin for their own protection, or the public’s—there are four deputies on patrol at any given time in the unincorporated parts of the county, which Patterson says is insufficient for providing backup, or for responding to a citizen in need.

And how to solve these collective problems is the matter at hand.

“The reason the tax is needed is our criminal justice system is underfunded, and it has been for some time.  Really right now, we have a system that’s in distress,” Patterson said. 

The tax proposal would bring in five million additional dollars per year. Over half of that would go to the Sheriff’s Department to hire 40 corrections officers, 16 new patrol officers, five detectives, and support staff.  The prosecuting attorney’s office would receive five new assistant prosecutors, and seven other employees. About half a million would go toward the county’s juvenile office, a small portion would go toward Pre-Trial services, and 380,000 dollars would go toward capital improvement projects. Those projects are not set in stone, but officials say they would likely include renovating the juvenile detention facility and re-structuring the jail. 

But not everyone is sold on the 1/8 cent tax proposal.

Greene County Presiding Commissioner Jim Viebrock says his main opposition is the timing.

“We’re undeniably in a horrible economic situation, and the environment is just not right to be asking taxpayers to pay additional revenues. Basically, when I look at this proposal, I see one major thing screaming out:  it’s 90-something new employees for the county. It’s the largest expansion of Greene county’s government, probably, in the history of Greene County,” he said.

Viebrock ran for office on a ticket of streamlining county government, and living within the means it already has. He and the other two commissioners are at odds over the tax. Viebrock says he’s come up with several suggestions for tackling the problem without a new tax, but says his proposals have fallen on deaf ears. One of his plans was to pay for 11 new employees in the Sheriff’s department using money from vacant positions. That plan, though, was rejected.

“If you take the positions that we’ve either authorized or I’ve proposed this year, I get at 35 percent of the positions that are being requested through this 1/8 c proposal as described by Safety and Justice Roundtable. And I’ve got another quarter of a million dollars identified now…[It’s been a] little more difficult to get past the other two commissioners.  I say that when we didn’t even get past them with the vacant positions. I’m not one of these hard core conservatives who says there will never be a time for a tax, because obviously, there are times for a tax. But the question is, is this the time for the tax?” he said.

I then ask Viebrock how much worse the jail overcrowding would have to get before he would support a tax to address the problem.

“I think that’s a great question. But what I can’t find in this proposal is how the jail overcrowding is addressed at all.  We’re adding additional corrections officers, we’re adding additional patrolmen.  The patrolmen are actually going to bring more people to jail. The prosecutor will tell you that because he has additional staff, his department will be able to reduce the number of people in jail. I question that. As a matter of fact, I out and out disagree with it. He is one leg of a three-legged stool. Without additional public defenders, and without additional judges, or some mechanism to make that system more efficient, they’re maxed out,” Viebrock said.

Join us one hour from now to hear the second half of this report, in which we pose that exact question to Prosecuting Attorney Dan Patterson, and take a deeper look into the proposed sales tax for law enforcement in Greene County.

For KSMU News, I’m Jennifer Moore.

[PART 2]

Presiding Commissioner Jim Viebrock says he doesn’t think the proposed sales tax would relieve jail overcrowding at all. He says more patrolmen and prosecutors, which the sales tax would pay for, would actually lead to more people in jail. 

I asked Prosecuting Attorney Dan Patterson about that—how would having several more prosecutors and deputies on patrol lead to fewer people in jail, especially without having any new judges or public defenders? Keep in mind, judges and public defenders are state positions, not county. Again, Dan Patterson.

“It’s our office that pushes cases—the prosecutor’s. The judges have some time standards, but really there’s no consequence for not meeting those times, except for personal pride. On the defense side, delay is always to the benefit of the defense, and one of the common tactics is to delay,” he said.

He says the five new prosecutors will be specifically assigned to moving cases through at a faster clip. He says they will do that by getting the charges prepared more quickly, and with more information that can be shared with the defense through the process of discovery.

Roseann Bentley is a Greene County Commissioner who voted to place the issue on the April ballot, along with Commissioner Harold Bengsch.  She said she knows the county needs more judges and public defenders, but the county can’t wait on the state any longer. It must try to do something locally, she says.

“We’re seeing counties now under court order, to do something about their overcrowding,” Bentley said.

She says she and the other commissioners continue to press state lawmakers for an expansion of so-called “drug courts,” which tackle a drug user’s addiction through treatment and close supervision, rather than time in jail.

“The reduction of recidivism is incredible when you have a forward thinking program like that. And when you can reduce the return to jail, you’ve made such a huge step. Because some of our prisoners are sort of a revolving door, in and out, in and out—because of drug or alcohol abuse,” Bentley said.

And, programs like Drug Courts and Pre-Trial Services keep the jail and prison populations down.

“We work with our local legislative delegation to make sure that they understand what our needs are,” says Harold Bengsch, the other Greene County Commissioner. He also supports the tax proposal.

“Collectively, the county commissioners across the state of Missouri  are working as one, if you will, to bring that message to the capitol in Jefferson City, so that all legislators understand [that] this is not just a Greene County problem,” Bengsch said.

Bengsch says he’s convinced that beefing up the Prosecuting Attorney’s office will indeed speed cases along, which will help unclog the courts.

Bengsch: “I’m not an attorney, but it certainly makes sense, because when you look at how the judicial system works, the stronger the case, the more likely you’re going to have a defendant ask for a plea, a bargain. That means getting that person out of our jail, if they’re guilty, into the state prison.  Whereas, as long as that’s delayed, they’re going to be sitting in our jail, and helping overcrowd the jail. It just makes sense when you look at it.”

Moore:  “What if they’re not guilty, though? If they’re not guilty and we don’t have enough public defenders or judges, as you mentioned, do you feel that might raise the risk of people being inclined to plead guilty for a plea bargain when they’re not, in fact, guilty?”

Bengsch: “Well, I think, they’ve got an attorney.  And I think when that attorney looks at the evidence that has been brought together against their client, then the client’s attorney will determine whether or not he thinks he has a reasonable chance at trial of getting an acquittal.  But unless that information is brought together in a timely fashion, there’s no reason to try to move that thing, because everything is on the side of the defense for delay.

Presiding Commissioner Jim Veibrock says the ultimate solution to the overcrowded jail and the backlogged courts is to work with state lawmakers like Senator Bob Dixon to bring more judges and public defenders to Greene County, in addition to hiring more prosecutors at the same time. He also wants to implement programs like drug courts to make offenders become productive citizens. Veibrock admits that won’t happen anytime soon, since the state is short on money, too.

“The more judges the state hires, and the more public defenders the state hires, the faster they move through the system.  But the faster they  move through the system, the faster they go to jail…but the penitentiaries are all full, and they can’t afford to build new ones,” Viebrock said.

Meanwhile, those supporting the tax point out that the majority of money would go toward the Sheriff’s department, not the Prosecuting Attorney’s office.

KSMU was unable to connect with Senator Bob Dixon for an interview.

A stormwater tax of 1/8 cent is expiring in 2012, so even if taxpayers do approve this law enforcement tax, they won’t actually see a change in their county sales tax. On the same token, if they don’t approve the new proposal, they will see their sales taxes go down one eighth of a cent.

Greene County Clerk Richard Struckhoff says the estimated cost for the county to hold an election in April would be about $70,000.  If other entities, like school districts or libraries decide to place issues on the ballot, then that cost would be shared…but right now, this is the only issue on the ticket.

Voters head to the polls April 3.

For KSMU News, I’m Jennifer Moore.

Update from 11/7/11:   Greene County has changed part of the budget under a proposed sales tax for law enforcement.  The Sheriff’s Office pay increase, that had been proposed at three percent, has been eliminated from the County’s 1/8-cent Law Enforcement Sales Tax proposal.  The tax proposal originally called for about $300,000 of the estimated $5 million annual revenue to fund a 3-percent salary increase for Sheriff’s Office employees.  Greene County Sheriff Jim Arnott and his staff requested the pay increase to be removed from the proposal’s budget, and for that funding to be applied to other areas in the proposal.

LINK:  Safety and Justice Roundtable 2011 Update