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Are we courageous or cowardly? You decide

Marion County voters will have an opportunity Tuesday to courageously face facts or to cowardly stick their heads in the sand.

Make no mistake about it: Tuesday’s ballot question is not about whether we need a new jail. We do. It is going to be built. It has to be.

Our current jail is a certifiably illegal death trap for employees and inmates when occupied as it was most of last year and is projected to be in future years.

The alternatives are ridiculously more expensive: hiring multiple employees, buying multiple vehicles, and wasting huge amounts of increasingly costly and non-renewable fuel hauling inmates hundreds of miles whenever there is an arrest or a hearing.

The jail is inhumane not just for inmates but also for staff. Deputies and dispatchers are forced to walk to work inches away from dangerous inmates who shower them with water — and possibly other things — from jail toilets.

That and the very real threat of a multimillion-dollar lawsuit backed by the ACLU will not go away with any solution other than a new jail. We still would have to maintain the current jail under any of those plans.

The only question now is how we are going to pay for a new jail. Reject the current proposal for a half-cent sales tax, which will cost the average county resident considerably less than $42 a year, and the next proposal, more than a year from now, will be to increase property taxes. Raising the same amount of money via property tax would cost the typical owner of an $80,000 home even more — $48 a year.

Sure, the county could cut expenses elsewhere, but to achieve the savings necessary, the biggest and most likely target would be roadwork, by far the county’s largest expenditure. To raise the same amount would require eliminating one out of every nine road repairs conducted — not something to take lightly given the sad state of county roads.

No one wants to raise taxes needlessly. A case can be made that the county commission has handled this issue poorly and that, in purely economic terms, a different fee structure might be better. However, in the seven years the county has been investigating the question, no better idea has emerged.

After a tax increase twice as big was rejected two years ago, a blue-ribbon panel dominated by jail opponents met dozens of times. All it could come up with was a plan that was ruled unconstitutional. Enough is enough.

Saying we need additional time to explore other options is nothing short of a cowardly attempt to avoid facing reality. The only people backing such a plan appear to be big business interests in Hillsboro. We cannot tell for sure, however. The only clue is an advertisement they ran last week that illegally failed to list any names of the people opposed.

Rumor is, it was Hillsboro car dealers. Maybe they are worried about losing sales — although that did not seem to stop Hillsboro from increasing its sales tax above Marion’s rate to pay for a new pool. Maybe they do not like that the jail would be in Marion. Maybe they just want to sell more vehicles and see the alternative of driving inmates all over countryside as a source of additional sales.

Marion County has spent years spending dramatically less on its jail and law enforcement than have the 10 Kansas counties closest in size. Our cheapness is finally catching up to us. It is not pleasant, but we have to pay the price for years of neglect.

Metaphorically, we are driving on bald tires. We can ignore the issue and spend all our time lamenting why it is not fair we have to pay to replace them. However, the longer we delay, the more we risk disaster, the cost of which will be much higher both financially and in human terms.

Do the right thing. Reject big-business pressure and vote “yes” Tuesday.

Last modified March 30, 2011

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