We need millage to have a good jail

Alpena County voters will be asked to support a millage for a new jail Tuesday when they head to the polls.

The county is asking for 1 mill over 20 years, which is projected to generate an estimated $19.6 million over that timeframe. Of that amount, $10.85 million would be used for jail construction, $4.6 million for bond interest and another $4.6 million for jail operations, including the salaries and benefits of eight new corrections officers.

If approved, the new jail will be built out M-32 on Alpena County Regional Airport property and will increase inmate capacity from 69 to 160.

For a property owner in the county who has that property appraised at $100,000, the new millage would cost that property owner $50 in taxes each year.

As might be expected, the millage has generated a good bit of discussion, both pro and con.

As voters finalize their position on the issue, I might suggest considering some of the issues I keep coming back to as I have formulated my own position on this important issue.

First, unlike state and federal prisons, the county jail is certainly not a Hilton. Have you seen the inside of it? Unfortunately, reading this today it is too late now to probably get an inspection of the jail before you vote Tuesday but trust me, our county jail is about as “bare bones” as you can get. Cracking walls and foundations, mold from leaks and just general wear and tear to a building built in 1956 has taken its toll on the structure. Anyone who thinks the inmates are living high off the hog need to rethink that position.

Second, the jail has been cited by federal officials for several deficiencies. With that a reality, how is the county to respond to the problems? Sheriff Steve Kieliszewski and I would both stress here that the jail isn’t going to shut its doors tomorrow as a result of those citations. However, we also would agree that ignoring the citations isn’t going to make them go away. They need addressed, so the real question you have to ask yourself is “how is that best accomplished?”

We can’t ignore them forever. Now that they’ve been issued they leave the county more vulnerable to legal action. Resolving them, however, is going to take money … and more money that can be obtained in an annual budget’s appropriations.

Each resident needs to wrestle with that before voting Tuesday.

Third, part of this millage will go to fund operations and the sheriff wants to add eight correction officers to the staff. The additional officers will make the jail operation safer and again, help the county comply with federal regulations.

Money for the eight new employees is covered over the 20 year length of the millage. After that, it will need addressed by the commissioners who are in office at that time. However, I expect it is not too far fetched to presume the county’s millage base will grow over that 20-year period, so the county’s budget could be, and probably will be, quite different from what we see today.

In today’s political climate where downsizing government seems to the preferred method of many, adding staff will raise a lot of eyebrows. You need to sort this out for yourself and again wrestle with the question “if not more officers, then how does the department ensure safety for the existing staff?”

Finally, I need to stress something here that is not a tangible issue to raise, but rather an intangible one. Never, ever, in my 39 years in journalism have I ever witnessed a more transparent millage presentation. Sheriff Kieliszewski and Undersheriff Terry King have been visible and available to the public. Each remains well after a presentation to answer questions of the public. After our Senior Expo weeks ago where the two made a presentation, each went table to table for hours afterward to meet with people and answer questions.

For me, that transparency on their part is the reason I will cast a “yes” vote Tuesday. It confirms my natural leanings anyway, and provides me a confidence that they have the county’s best interest by advocating for this proposal.

I expect this vote will be close. We are talking about dipping deeper into people’s wallets and that never is easy.

If not now though, then when?

One thing is for sure, the problems at the jail won’t just magically disappear.

Bill Speer can be reached via email at bspeer@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 354-3111 ext. 331. Follow Bill on Twitter @billspeer13.