After months of discussion, the Benton County Commission voted to place a proposition on the April 2018 ballot to ask voters for a sales tax to pay for a new jail.

Proposition 1 states “Shall the county of Benton, Missouri impose a county wide sales tax in the amount of one-half of one percent ($0.005) for a period of twenty-one years from the date on which such tax is first imposed for the purpose of operations and paying for the construction of a new jail for detention facilities and administrative office space for the County Sheriff’s operations?  If approved, this sales tax will expire on September 30, 2039 or whenever the final payment occurs on the lease certificates of participation financing, whichever comes first.”

Commissioner Jim Hansen said that the ½ cent sales tax was needed in order to construct a new jail facility.

“It is a needed facility for the safety of our detainees and our employees,” Hansen said.  “When we tried to pass a ½ cent sales tax back in April of 2016, we were asking for 12 ½ million dollars for a new jail.  Now we have brought the cost of the jail down to $10 million dollars.”

Hansen said he was optimistic about the chances of this tax passing.

“The Commission plans to hold at least one town hall meeting in each of the towns in Benton County to explain the plans for the new jail,” said Hansen.  “Organizations can also contact the Benton County Commission to set up a time and place for the Commissioners to come and speak about the plans for the jail.”

While the Benton County Deputies have moved their offices to the Hawthorn Bank building, Sheriff Eric Knox still has his office in the Benton County Jail.

“We couldn’t use the second story of the building so we moved the offices of my deputies to the Hawthorn Bank but I remained here,” said Knox.

The second floor of the jail is sealed off to keep the rest of the building free of the approximately 9,000 bats which have invaded the space between the ceiling and the roof.

The present jail was built in 1856 and used as a bank then in 1912 it was converted into a jail.  According to Knox, the building is not suitable for the people who work for the county or for the detainees who are held there.

“The people we hold here are waiting for their day in court,” Knox said.  “A jail is usually not for the punishment phase, but to hold those who have been arrested and are waiting to either be bonded out or send to the Department of Corrections.”

During 2017 there were 840 males and 371 females arrested and held in the Benton County Jail.  The daily count of inmates in the Benton County Jail was a high of 41 and a low of 16.

“Sometimes we have to bring in extra beds to take care of the detainees,” Knox said.  “It isn’t the best situation but we do what we have to.”

Right now Knox can only house 24, but the new proposed facility will have 80 beds with the possibility of expansion to include 100 beds. The proposed jail would include a small courtroom, office space and a secured garage.

“In the new facility we would be able to drive into a garage, close the doors and then unload the suspect without the suspect ever stepping outside,” Knox explained.  “We designed the jail with input from our Jail Administrator, the Under Sheriff and our Lieutenant and it will be very secure.”

The location of the new proposed jail would be just off Old 65 Highway down the hill from Studio 86 and Warsaw Chiropractic on Main Street on property owned by Roberta Collier.

“Part of the reason that we didn’t pass the jail proposal in 2016 was because of the location in the downtown area and because of the cost,” Knox said.  “I think we have addressed those issues.”

“If the citizens choose not to pass the tax and not to do the jail, then we will have to look at eventually closing this facility down at some point and do what a lot of other counties do;  send our detainees somewhere else at a huge cost to the taxpayers,”  Knox said,   “Right now when we are overcrowded we have to send our people to Henry County for a cost of $40 a day or Pettis County for $45 a day.”
Benton County voters did pass an 1/8 of a cent sales tax in 2016 to assist in the operation of the jail facility but they did not pass the ½ cent sales tax to build a new building.

“I am very optimistic about the outcome of the election and I invite anyone who wants to tour our present jail to come in and I will show you why we need a new building,” Knox said.

Presiding Commissioner Michelle McLerran Kreisler commented that the Commission and the Jail Committee had tried to listen to the public and keep them informed on plans for the proposed jail.

“I think people were misled about the cost of the proposed jail facility in the April 2016 election,” said McLerran-Kreisler. “We want to make sure this time that we get the information out to the public then let them make up their minds.”

McLerran-Kreisler explained that the 1/8 of a cent sales tax in 2016 had been used to pay for sending detainees to other counties to be held while awaiting trial.

“We presented that sales tax initiative because we didn’t have the funds to pay for sending the detainees to Henry or Pettis County,” McLerran-Kreisler said.

McLerran-Kreisler said that the Commission will be putting a power point-video presentation together to take the message to the three cities in the county to give information to the voters.

“I want the voters to decide this issue,” McLerran-Kreisler said.  “It is not my job to influence voters, I just want everyone to have the factual information.”

Commissioner Dale “Jr.” Estes commented that it was obvious that Benton County needed a new jail and he thought the sales tax proposal was the most fair.

“By paying for the jail with a ½ cent sales tax everyone pays for it equally,” Estes said. “Tourists who visit our county will pay every time they purchase something here. Otherwise, with a property tax only people who own property here in Benton County will be facing the burden of additional taxes.”

Voters will go to the polls on April 3 to decide on the proposed jail.

By:Anita Campbell | Benton County Enterprise