By Deb Hill
Coconino County Supervisor
Greetings to all Coconino County residents. Spring is finally here and the weather is beautiful. We look forward to a good year with (hopefully) adequate rainfall to keep our county healthy.
The Coconino Board of Supervisors is working hard to keep our county healthy in many other important ways. For months we have been engaged in a community safety discussion regarding everything from alcohol and substance abuse to our jail.
As you know, there is a direct connection between substance abuse and crime, and we are seeing increases in property crimes and identity theft that mirror the increases in substance abuse. All of this adds up to some complex decisions that we need to make at the Board level, and we have just made a huge decision related to the jail district sales tax.
Here is what is going on:
We have had different levels of success in dealing with social ills, but sometimes we see no success at all, For example, those who suffer from substance abuse are often picked up for committing crimes, serve their time in jail, are released and within hours are picked up again. We refer to this as the ‘revolving door’ at the jail.
While sometimes the jail serves as a de facto “detox” center, it is not the best approach to this problem. Unfortunately many communities lack adequate programs and facilities for dealing with substance abuse on a broader, more proactive scale and those who are stuck in a substance abuse cycle may end up in jail instead of in treatment.
If the goal is recovery, then we can probably all agree that jails are not the best places for substance abusers. On the other hand, if crimes are being committed, residents have the right to feel safe in their own communities and to have those who are committing these crimes serve their time.
Law enforcement has no choice – they must enforce the law regardless of whether it is the best approach to recovery for the individual or not. One result of all of this is that our county jail population has grown to the point where it is costing too much to run the jail. Now we have a financial issue to deal with, in addition to a social issue.
The Board of Supervisors has been working with treatment providers in the Flagstaff area for more than two years now, discussing alternative care for those with substance abuse problems. Some plans are now in the works, with county support, that may lead to a continuum of care for substance abuse treatment. If the proposed pieces fall into place, there will be a much more comprehensive system to support those who find themselves battling addiction of one sort or another.
Simultaneously, we have been discussing the jail situation. While the substance abuse issue impacts us at the jail with increased numbers of inmates that are serving time for drug- and alcohol-related offenses, that is not the only reason for the increasing jail population. Other reasons are related to the criminal justice system overall, and include sentencing patterns, case flow through the courts and simply our growing county population.
Running a jail is a costly proposition. The county jail is supported by revenues from a jail district, which is basically a taxing area. Within the jail district are all private lands in the county, and excluded are public lands and tribal lands.
Our jail district was formed about a decade ago and was approved by the voters, with a sales tax rate of three-tenths of a cent. That means for every $100 of taxable goods that a person purchases, a tax of 30 cents is collected. That money pays to run the jail.
Unfortunately we knew when the jail tax was adopted that it would not cover the costs of running the jail forever. The jail, under the direction of the sheriff and the jail district board of directors (the county board of supervisors wearing different hats) has been able to meet its costs by renting excess bed space to state and federal prisoners. Coconino County residents have benefited from our jail bed rental policy – over 10 years the rental beds have brought in $11million to pay for jail expenses and the tax payers have been saved from having to pay that amount.
Now the growth of the local population in jail has become large enough that it is impacting our ability to rent beds. More and more of those beds are needed to house our own inmates.
Along with that, jail costs have risen over the past 10 years just as costs have risen for anyone running any type of business. We now have reached a decision point where we need to look again at the jail budget and the criminal justice system and see if what can be done to help balance the budget and make our system more efficient.
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The jail district board of directors and the sheriff have undertaken key initiatives to assist with the jail budget dilemma. We began with an assessment of our criminal justice system, working with consultants from the National Institute of Corrections.
The NIC consultants provided us with a plan that discussed how to manage our jail and our whole justice system more efficiently. We have implemented several of their recommendations, including creating a Criminal Justice Coordinating Council to oversee and integrate our entire system. Through the CJCC we continue to work on improving the efficiency of our justice system.
In addition, we have been working with the substance abuse treatment community and other groups to identify strategies for dealing more effectively with substance abusers. While the county drug court has been up and running for six years now, and is a very effective program, a substance abuse conference last fall recommended that we also look at beginning an in-house treatment program in the jail. Of course doing this will cost additional money, but we see it as an essential link in stopping the revolving door jail use by those with abuse problems.
Finally, we commissioned a Blue Ribbon Panel of county citizens to look at the jail budget situation and make recommendations. (Thank you to Allen Jones of Leupp and Tom Chabin, formerly of Moenkopi, for service on the Blue Ribbon Panel.) The panel’s report, recently released, confirms the need for the in-house substance abuse treatment program, recommends increasing the jail district sales tax by an additional two-tenths of a cent (20 cents additional on a $100 taxable purchase) and directs us to continue to implement the NIC recommendations.
Earlier this month the board approved taking the tax increase to a vote of the citizens of Coconino County. All registered voters in the county will be able to vote on this issue at the September primary election. There will be two questions on the ballot: one is asking whether or not to increase the sales tax by 2/10ths of a cent, and one is asking whether or not to extend the term of the tax to the year 2027 (currently the tax is due to expire in the year 2012).
Of course the sales tax applies only in the non-tribal portion of the county but all residents will have the opportunity to vote. If the tax is increased, it will stabilize the jail budget and help us to implement an in-house treatment program.
Unfortunately we must have a jail. We all wish we lived in a community where no one ever felt unsafe or threatened, and where no laws were ever broken. Maybe someday we will live to see that beautiful future, but right now jails are a part of life.
In Coconino County, since 1985 arrests of juveniles are up 168 percent and adult arrests are up 204 percent. We have seen an increase in domestic violence cases, a small increase in violent crime and a growing increase in arrests due to narcotics and meth.
Our county is growing and we must expect and plan for the jail population to grow as a result. Having our jail helps keep us safe.
I encourage all of you to become educated on this issue, since you will see it when you go to the polls in September. If my office can provide any information, please do not hesitate to contact me (or Supervisor Louise Yellowman).
Please read your ballot carefully and think about the questions before you: should we increase the sales tax so that we can continue to run our jail with the budget necessary to keep our county safe and to provide new programs for inmates dealing with substance abuse? Shall we continue to do so into the future?
I am asking for your support of this proposal – together we will be able to address serious issues that face our families, our communities and our county.
(Deb Hill is Coconino County Supervisor for District 4, which takes in portions of the Navajo and Hopi Reservations.)