“Dallas County dearly needs a new jail and sheriff’s office. Everyone agrees on that point.”
I wrote that sentence in August 2015, which was the last time Dallas County voters faced a special election on a new sheriff’s station and jail, and the problem has not gone away in the meantime.
The murder Monday of Pottawattamie County Sheriff’s Deputy Mark Burbridge is a grim reminder of the risks faced by law enforcement when they transport prisoners, and the Dallas County Sheriff’s office on an average day transports more of its prisoners to other counties’ jails than it houses in the county’s own 36-bed jail in Adel.
Dallas County taxpayers spent about $450,000 in 2016 to house their overflow inmates in other counties’ jails. And that’s just the cost of renting the jail space. It doesn’t include the cost of getting our prisoners to and from the county jails in Boone and Story and Guthrie and Jasper and Warren counties.
The risk of transportation was made painfully clear in March 2016 with the deaths of Des Moines Police Officers Carlos Puente-Morales and Susan Farrell, killed in a head-on collision on U.S. Interstate 80 while transporting a prisoner from Council Bluffs to Des Moines.
Dallas County’s 36-bed jail will be reduced by one-third to 24 beds in March 2018, when the Iowa Department of Corrections waiver expires that granted the jail the extra dozen beds. The state waiver was originally granted in 2000, with the expectation that Dallas County would take action to solve its space problem, but the state has tired of waiting.
If the Dallas County Jail drops to 24 beds, we will see an absurd spectacle: Dallas County, the ninth-most populous county in the state at 82,000 people, will then rate 49th in jail capacity out of Iowa’s 99 counties. We will be right behind Wayne County with its population of 6,400.
If and when that state waiver expires, taxpayers will soon end up spending upwards of $1 million a year to house its prisoners in other counties.
The solution is obvious: build the $22.9 million Dallas County Law Enforcement Center in the Ortonville area of eastern Adel.
This will mean a rise in our property taxes, and some people oppose the LEC referendum on that basis alone. Many fiscal conservatives — traditionally averse to government spending — have come to support the referendum for the simplicity of the math: the money is going to be spent, so why not receive a return on the investment?
And surely public safety takes priority over our anti-tax inclinations.
While it is true that the county assessor’s recent 5.8 percent countywide increase in property values — an issue, by the way, completely unrelated to the LEC bond referendum — has irked some property owners, the larger overall county valuation pie means the tax impact of the LEC on each individual taxpayer is reduced.
Either way, we will pay, but we will pay a lot less in the long run by building the new LEC. If the county continues to operate the present jail and sheriff’s administration offices for another 30 years, the cost to taxpayers will be $239 million. On the other hand, the cost to build and operate the new LEC for the same length of time is $217 million.
In other words, if we build the new LEC, taxpayers at the end of that 30-year period will have $22 million they would otherwise have spent running the old jail. Not a net gain but a smaller net loss — because either way, we will pay.
But that kind of mental experiment is fatuous because the present sheriff’s office and jail cannot and will not be operated for another 30 years. A new LEC will be built. It is just a matter of when and how. Maybe the Dallas County Supervisors will just keep bringing the issue back before voters in election after election until either the voters approve it or they elect different supervisors.
Or maybe the supervisors will simply raise the general levy rate, generate a surplus of $25 million or $30 million and build the LEC with general fund revenues. That would be the costliest and least efficient route, but it is apparently the route the county’s leaders have been forced to take before.
As Sheriff Chad Leonard ruefully notes in presentations, Dallas County’s citizens have never in their history voted to buy themselves a new jail.
Let’s change the arc of Dallas County history and do the financially prudent thing. The proposed Ortonville law enforcement center will satisfy the county’s present and future needs for the next 50 years in the most nearly optimal way, and for these reasons we urge Dallas County voters to vote “Yes” today.
Polls in today’s Dallas County Special Election open at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m. County voters may cast their ballots at their precinct polling places. The 34 county precinct locations are:
For more information about the 2017 countywide special election, call the Dallas County Auditor’s office at 515-993-6914 or visit www.co.dallas.ia.us/government/auditor/elections.