Jails are expensive to rebuild or repair. Ohio bill aims to share costs

The state’s poorest counties would go to the top of the list for state funding to fix or replace their jails, under a bill being considered by the Ohio Senate.

The financing plan is modeled on the school building assistance program the state has used since 1997. It could have a big impact in the Miami Valley.

Montgomery County is already asking for $40 million from an Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction competitive grant to pay for a major jail renovation. The project’s total price is estimated at $140 million.

Greene County voters have twice rejected a sales tax increase to build a new jail, including once during the election last week. The current one dates to 1969, with the sheriff’s administrative offices in a 1929 building.

State Reps. Jason Stephens, R-Kitts Hill, and Jay Edwards, R-Nelsonville, filed House Bill 101 in February. It passed the House 93-2 in October and came before the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday.

Counties would be ranked based on their property tax values and gross taxable retail sales, weighted equally, Stephens told committee members. Based on that, a number of counties each year will be invited to apply for available funds, he said.

The bill’s intent is to establish a simple formula, letting counties know where they stand in jail funding priority, Stephens said.

“The basic starting point is financial,” he said. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation & Corrections would have some flexibility in recommending projects based on local jail conditions and crowding, Stephens said.

Counties would be able to see their ranking and plan a few years down the road, enabling them to line up financing for the necessary local contribution, he said.

Funding would “in theory” come from the state’s capital budget, Stephens said.

State Sen. Jay Hottinger, R-Newark, asked how the state currently allocates jail construction funding.

Stephens said last year’s capital budget included $50 million for county jails. County officials got a questionnaire from ODRC on their local jail conditions, and the state agency decided how to allocate the available funds, he said.

State Sen. Vernon Sykes, D-Akron, asked if the new rules would include any guidance on whether jails should be replaced, repaired or expanded.

“That will probably come further down the line with this program,” Stephens said. Most projects in the first few years will be full replacements, due to the age of some of Ohio’s county jails, he said.

Under HB 101, the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission would work with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation & Correction to develop minimum standards for building jails. The Ohio Department of Taxation would create a ranking system for jail projects, and rank counties every other year based on local property and sales tax expectations.

The minimum proportion of funding that either a county or the state would have to put toward a jail project is 25% of the cost, Stephens said.

“Recent jail construction projects in Ohio suggest a per-bed construction cost of between $90,000 and $275,000, or roughly between $9 million and $27.5 million for a 100-bed facility,” according to the bill analysis. “A county receiving a minimum of 25% state funding through the process could save between $2.3 million and $6.9 million for a 100-bed facility.”

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