“Build the Facility”: Wheel Tax in Place for Jail Funding

By Amanda Curtis,

Staff Reporter

Picture this: cruising down a dirt road, sun shining, windows down,  arm out, John Denver’s “Country Road” blaring from the speakers. The emergency alarm suddenly cut’s off the mountain man and a harsher, more alarming voice takes over, “We interrupt this broadcast to bring you breaking news!”

With rising alarm, the voice on the radio speaks of three explosions being observed on Mars, witnesses sighting UFOs and first hand accounts of strange creatures firing futuristic heat rays killing dozens of people. At this point, people are running out of their homes with towels covering their faces to protect themselves from the killer alien gases.

This is the instance of the well- known alien invasion radio broadcast from October 1938. Orson Welles was performing a dramatization of the science-fiction piece, “War of the Worlds,” and people who were uninformed, only listening to pieces of a story, prematurely freaked out, believing Martians were invading New Jersey. They made judgments too soon, without listening to the full story, without being fully informed.

In today’s society, it’s all too common. Reminds me of post sharing on Facebook. Something is read, strikes a fancy, no research is done to confirm any sort of truth, it’s shared. Then, others see it, agree with and share it until it has been shared 500,000 times, and now people believe the Loch Ness monster has been captured in a mermaid cove in the Scottish Highlands. Is this scenario a little dramatic? Maybe. Unrealistic? Unfortunately not.

The jail situation is a local example of jumping to conclusions or making decisions without having all the facts.

The Lewis County Commissioners voted on a jail plan (see accompanying photo) and a funding source for that plan for the first time since the need arose over 15 years ago. Go Commissioners! (in my opinion only).

Monday, February 25, 2018, 16 of the 18 Lewis County Commissioners voted unanimously to increase the current $20 wheel tax $45 to fund the $4.7 million  jail project. Robert Brewer presented a proposal including a remodel of the existing facility to house the female offenders along with a portion of the new facility, which will include a two-story detention center of 101 beds in four pods. Out of the $45, $30 will go into a capital projects to fund the build, repair and renew buildings, and $15 will go toward staffing and other operational costs of the facility.

FloorPlan

“$4-5 million is significantly less than the plan we talked about last month,” said Ronnie Brewer, “and we are able to pay this plan off 10 years earlier.” During the discussion, Commissioner Allison Tanner called Lewis County Jail Administrator Fred Boyce from the audience to hear his opinion on the new proposal.

“We are facing decertification for two reasons. Overcrowding and an insufficient facility have been the problems for over 15 years now,” he stated. “This plan seems to address both of those issues. This is a good option. It will work.”

Regarding the insufficient facility, the issue is segregation. “I cannot put people charged with attempted second degree murder in the same cell with first offense child support offenders. It goes against the U.S. Constitution, and we have to follow that whether we like it or not.”

After posting the breaking news to the Lewis County Herald’s Facebook page Monday night, the response to the vote was overwhelming. Whether positive or negative, it seemed everyone had something to say. There were many questions raised and a lot of assumptions. After reviewing public input, I believe it is important that commissioners have a chance to voice their responses. Here are a few citizen-voiced concerns and the responses provided by those in office.

(1) “The commissioners continue lining their pockets with our money.”

* Commissioners get a check for $138.52 twelve times a year, whether they have 12 meetings or 30. “Nobody’s pay is going to increase from this tax,” responded Commissioner Tanner.

(2) Why are we taking in state inmates?

* “The county jail cannot ‘farm’ state inmates,” replies Robert Brewer. “The state inmates are people who committed a felony in Lewis County and are waiting for a bed to open up at a prison. It is common to have a 12-18 month wait to get a woman in a state prison.”

(3) Does Lewis County have to pay any other jail for housing their inmates because of overcrowding?

* “$39 per day, plus medial and travel is what we have to pay to other counties housing our inmates because we don’t have room for them,” stated County Mayor Jonah Keltner.  “We just wrote a check to Perry County for almost $3,000 for one month of housing only three of our inmates. And, that doesn’t include the medical and travel expenses of getting them back and forth to court.”

(4) Why are we adding a wheel tax to fund a jail when we don’t have any jobs in Hohenwald? Why are we not adding businesses that would add to our revenue base?

* “Honestly, although jobs are a need in Lewis County, and we are always working toward making Lewis County an inviting place for industry to move to, the issues are unrelated. The issue of building this facility deals with taking care of community members who have committed crimes, and the need for space to house them in the name of justice,” said one commissioner who desired to remain anonymous.

(5) Are we going to have the highest wheel tax in Tennessee?

* According to Court Clerk Sandra Clayton, the current wheel tax is $20. Raising it to $45 will make it $65. Unlike some surrounding counties, we are fortunate that Lewis County is not required to go through emissions testing.

(6) In the place of the wheel tax, how much property tax increase would it have taken to fund this jail?

“The property tax would have gone up an additional 28 cents an acre,” confirmed Mayor Keltner. “If you own a $100,000 house, that would be a $70 increase.”

(7) Where is the money from the original wheel tax being spent?

*  “The original wheel tax funds have been redirected to the general fund to be used on items in the budget voted on by the commission,” confirms Mayor Keltner. While the funds are not specifically earmarked, the general fund includes financially supporting non-profits such as the Food Bank, Cancer Victims Fund and Senior Center.

(8) Once the jail is paid off, will this tax ever go away?

* The truth is probably not. The reasoning is that there is always going to be a place for improvement.  “Hopefully, the extra revenue that goes into the general fund can be used for other things around our county we all want,” Commissioner T.J. Hinson stated.   Examples would include youth recreational activities, restoration of buildings that are falling apart yet are housing some of our much needed industry, etc.

(9) Can’t we just put the criminals in tents and get it over with?

* “We all know someone who is or who has been in the system out here. These people are family members,” stated Mr. Boyce. Commissioner Robert Brewer agreed. “These criminals are not lost souls. They are still of value to our society.”

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