A strong case can be made that the long-needed fixes qualify for funds from the latest federal coronavirus relief bill.
Five years after a county taxpayers forcefully rejected a plan to raise the local sales tax to pay for improvements to county facilities, the Champaign County Board seems ready to try again to correct decades-long problems with its jail infrastructure.
The time is right, if for no other reason than the county has a huge pot of funds from the latest federal coronavirus relief act for projects like this. Those federal funds can be used to pay for a substantial amount of, although not all of, the potential improvements to the county’s satellite jail in east Urbana. Ideally, it also would mean the end of the jail in downtown Urbana that was built on the cheap in 1980 and has been problematic almost from the start.
The county board will consider Thursday night a resolution to establish a seven-member ad hoc committee on jail facilities with a goal of “developing a plan for closure of the downtown jail, repairs and modifications of the satellite jail and relocation of the sheriff’s offices” by the Nov. 18 county board meeting.
Given the way Champaign County government moves — the board has been talking about jail improvements for about 20 years — that’s an ambitious timetable. But the need is great.
The deplorable condition of the downtown jail is just one of the problems Sheriff Dustin Heuerman is dealing with, including a critical shortage of correctional officers. Also on Thursday night’s agenda is a proposal to increase the sheriff’s budget so he can offer $5,000 sign-on bonuses for new correctional officers. The sheriff said he is short 10 correctional officers, has only two candidates on the eligibility list and is about to start shipping out inmates to neighboring counties to address the staffing shortage.
The high turnover at the jail, Heuerman told the county board, is the result of a number of factors, including COVID-19 protocols, the current state of public support for criminal-justice officers, pay, alternative employment goals and concerns about safety at the jail.
The county’s correctional facilities need to be made safer for jail staff and inmates. And physical and mental health services to both groups must be improved.
It’s too early to know whether the county board will ask voters again in 2022 to pay for a portion of the correctional improvements. Some of those improvements — such as adding classrooms or counseling rooms for inmates, or moving the sheriff’s office to the satellite jail — may not qualify for federal funds. The money for those improvements may have to come from another source, possibly a more modest tax increase than the one sought in 2016.
That one, a quarter-cent increase in the county’s sales-tax rate, was suggested for a number of uses including jail improvements, a community behavioral health center and improvements to the old county nursing home.
That tax increase failed at the polls by a margin of 70 to 30 percent. But that was the same election that a large property-tax increase was on the ballot for Champaign schools. The tax-increase climate next year may be better.
Or perhaps the money could come from another source. But it’s time to close the downtown jail — an outside consultant told the county board in 2013 that it needed to be shut down “as quickly as possible” — and move jail cells, offices and services to the newer and better built satellite facility. We’re glad to see the county board moving in that direction.