It is always a risky thing to make a promise, especially if you hold an elected office. Last year, as I campaigned for a seat on the Sullivan County Board of Commissioners, I made a promise. I was frequently asked about taxes. I promised that I would not vote to raise taxes during my first year. This past July, I kept my promise, not that it made a difference. The commission voted to raise taxes. Barring some miracle, however, I do not foresee being able to vote no in 2020. I believe people need to know why so they can prepare for what is coming.
I voted no for two reasons. First, because, while are jobs available, income levels haven’t kept up with the cost of living. Folks don’t have any more money in their pockets now as compared to last year. Economic recovery and good government keeps money in wallets, not government coffers. However, a second reason I voted no is because of an enormous, unfortunate, but necessary expense coming our way, which will require a tax increase.
It is no secret we have a jail issue in Sullivan County. Sheriff Jeff Cassidy, Chief Jail Administrator Lee Carswell and others have shared about the situation. They also invited commissioners to come see for themselves. I, along with other commissioners, took them up on that opportunity and, although not the worst jail I’ve seen (as a pastor I’ve visited several across the country), it was bad, in need of attention and financial support. We have an overcrowding issue, which often puts our officers in harm’s way. That alone is unacceptable.
The men and women of our sheriff’s department work hard, and they need to know that we are behind them as a community, not just when something tragic happens but in a proactive way. We should do all that we can to ensure that those who serve our community have all they need. Without a doubt, something must be done about our jail and some things are being done.
The Board of Commissioners approved hiring MBI to provide consultation regarding the costs, and options for expanding or building a jail. Mayor Richard Venable formed five jail committees each with specific tasks around the jail issue. In fact, MBI will be giving an update to those committees in September. Additionally, I became the chair of the Criminal Justice Committee for TCSA.
TCSA is hosting seminars on jail liability and criminal justice matters because jail issues are not just a Sullivan County problem. Several of our commissioners are attending those seminars. I can assure you that a lot is going on to try to figure out ways to address the current situation in our jail. As much as I would like to see alternatives to building a new jail and diversion programs, I believe the opportunities to do so are long passed. From what I can tell, it is becoming clear that our community will be faced with a large criminal justice expense in the next few years. One estimated figure is in excess of $50 million but the final numbers aren’t in.
It does not do any good to look for someone to blame for our jail issues. It is also pointless to look back and contend that someone or a group should have fixed it in the past. It is simply an exercise in futility. The problem is here, and it must be dealt with now; it is expensive, but it is ours — Sullivan County’s — to fix.
Knowing what I know about jail conditions, the impact it has on our officers, and the precarious position it places our county in with the state, I will be prepared to vote for a tax increase in 2020. I know that may seem like a long way off, but it really isn’t. My hope, however, is that this commission will have the foresight to plan better so that we don’t run into this again; so that in five years, we aren’t building another jail. But until then, I believe you should know what is coming so that you and your wallet can prepare.