Oklahoma County has again delayed action on a proposal to tax our citizens to build a new jail and adjoining juvenile detention facility. Rather than the proposed sales tax plan, I favor a much less costly way to address the jail's undeniable problems. We do have options. Our first response shouldn't be to impose yet another extended sales tax on the public.
The jail was built in 1991. It was flawed from the beginning. In 2007, the U.S. Department of Justice cited 60 deficiencies in the structure and operation of the jail. Sheriff John Whetsel, supported by the county commissioners, has addressed 56 of those issues; last year the jail won accreditation from the American Correctional Association. The remaining few issues aren't serious enough to require the construction of an entire new jail.
Proposed is a 10-year, half-penny countywide sales tax, to raise $350 million to replace the jail and build a new juvenile detention center, both on a site that's yet to be purchased. Keep in mind that sales taxes aren't imposed in a vacuum; they're stacked on top of existing state and city sales taxes (plus other temporary levies such as MAPS), which in some communities are approaching 10 percent.
In addition, the recent fiscal cliff legislation in Washington restored a 2 percent rollback in the federal payroll tax, which finances Social Security. So every working Oklahoman just saw his or her disposable income trimmed by 2 percent. There is a point where an additional half or 1 percent drop in purchasing power (which a sales tax represents) begins to harm the economy and slow overall economic growth.
Economic issues aside, there are better and less costly ways to address the jail issue. First, we could build a one-story annex to the existing jail to house low-security inmates in dormitory-style settings, more modern medical and mental health units and ample secured outdoor exercise areas. This would alleviate federal concerns on the remaining deficiencies.
Second, we can make greater use of alternative sentencing such as the SHINE community service program that I developed in 2010. It costs nearly $50 a day to keep one person in jail. Instead, put that person to work on graffiti removal or litter pickup, as SHINE does, and keep jail populations to a more manageable level.
Third, the juvenile detention center doesn't face the same deficiency issues that confront the jail. Its relocation, while desirable in the long term because of neighboring commercial development, isn't an immediate necessity. We should separate the two issues and focus first on the jail.
Government's first responsibility is to the taxpayers. When faced with challenges, its first response should not be more taxes, but the careful weighing of every option.
Maughan, a Republican, is Oklahoma County District 2 commissioner.