Sheriff’s Department seeks support for public safety tax

By Gus Bode

Even though voters overwhelmingly came out against the public safety tax last year, Jackson County officials are trying again and are saying it is still needed.

Officials say the tax was voted down because residents were not informed and that is why a public safety tax committee was formed this year. The committee, which discusses the feasibility and necessity of the tax, has met several times and another meeting will take place 7 p.m. on Nov. 7 at the Carbondale Civic Center.

“We are trying to present the matter to the public early on to develop some sense if there would be support and what the public expects,” said Tom Busch, administrative assistant for the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department.

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It is still in the early stages, but if the public safety tax were approved, it would increase sales tax by .25 percent and would generate an estimated $1 million to provide the department with more deputies and a jail expansion. If the Jackson County Board approves, the tax referendum could be on the March primary ballot.

Busch said support from community is important and encourages residents to attend the meeting to provide feedback and ask questions.

“Citizens need to help us give them better service,” Busch said. ” I challenge anybody to show me somebody in Jackson County that doesn’t in some form stand to use the benefits of more public safety.”

The Sheriff’s Department employs 24 deputies to cover 588 square miles of the county, most of which is rural, and protect nearly 60,000 residents. According to a U.S. Department of Justice report, the nation wide ratio of county officers to 1000 inhabitants is 2.7. The ratio in Jackson County is nearly one-sixth of the national average at .42.

Busch said with the rural areas in the county, the safety of the deputies is a concern. Busch said a few weeks ago, a deputy responded to a domestic battery call and ended up being attacked. Even though he only suffered minor injuries, Busch said the situation probably would not have occurred if two deputies were able to respond.

In addition, Busch and Jackson County Jail Administrator Jeff Whitbeck said the needs of the department have not changed and the need for a jail expansion has become more apparent and is likely to increase.

The county jail has a capacity of 117 inmates, and there is an average of 91 per day. Whitbeck said sometimes jail inmates have to sleep on the floor when it is full on weekends. He also said if the jail is expanded it would provide more opportunities for the county to house federal inmates, for which the county would be able to charge.

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Last year, the public safety tax proposed increasing sales tax by .5 percent and could have generated nearly $2 million. It was voted down by nearly 68 percent of county voters.

If the board approves the tax, it would be used to add seven additional law enforcement positions, one telecommunicator, at least three more jail officer positions and possibly expand the jail beyond its capacity of 117 inmates. It would also add one part-time employee who would be responsible for delivering papers, such as warrants and civil service records.

At this point, Jackson County Sheriff Bob Burns said the committee meetings are being held to provide information to allow the public to make an informed decision.

“There is no question in my mind that it would enhance public safety,” he said.

Reporter Bethany Krajelis can be reached at [email protected]

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