Champaign County officials say they are facing a host of critical repairs and improvements that need to be made at county buildings but have been deferred for years.
In response, they have proposed a 0.25 percent sales tax referendum they say will cost a median-income household only $20 per year. This translates to an additional 25 cents in sales tax for every $100 spent on retail, excluding food, medicine and titled vehicles.
The current sales tax rate in Champaign County is 7.5 percent, a combination of the 6.25 percent state sales tax and the 1.25 county sales tax. Additional sales tax rates vary by cities in the county ranging from 7.5 to 9 percent.
County residents will vote on the proposal at the polls on Nov. 8.
Some oppose the increase in sales tax. The advocacy group Build Programs Not Jails, which argues more money should be allocated to mental health and less to jails in order to decrease incarceration rates, is one such opponent, while others question raising taxes.
The county needs about $3 million annually for maintenance but only has about $500,000 available each year, according to the Champaign County Facilities Action Plan drafted by County Administrator Rick Snider. The plan provides in-depth details about the needs and the financing of suggested facilities projects.
Snider said there is simply not enough revenue now to maintain and improve facilities each year.
“So, we’re doing the things we have to do, the statutory functions, but at the expense of keeping up with things like preventative maintenance,” he said. “ That’s been a real challenge.”
Under Illinois law, the facilities sales tax revenue can only be allocated to public facilities and costs including development, architectural planning, construction, equipment, improvement, installation and other related projects. Eventually, over 12 or fewer years, this plan would generate more than $50 million for five main areas: deferred maintenance, corrections consolidation, community behavioral health, the county nursing home and the sheriff’s office.
The official breakdown of the Champaign County Facilities Action Plan is as follows:
Deferred Maintenance of Buildings: $22,354,750
In 2015, Champaign County underwent a facilities assessment conducted by the architectural firm Bailey Edward. From the 25 buildings assessed, the facility portfolio received a “fair” rating, which represents conditions of slightly older buildings that require more substantial maintenance. Several facilities had significant deferred maintenance backlogs.
The proposed plan to fix these problems is estimated to cost $22 million over the course of 10 years. There are 18 jobs mentioned in the plan, including maintenance for animal control, the Brookens Administrative Center, the courthouse, an enterprise resource planning system, Satellite Corrections and the county nursing home among other projects.
“Part of it’s going to be determined by the level of need,” Snider said.
He said they would focus on the outside of buildings such as walls and roofs.
“Once you get a leaky roof, then you’ve got potential for water intrusion and mold, and it gets really expensive,” Snider said. “ So those things would probably come first.”
Corrections Facilities Consolidation: $12,795,000
There are two main areas of this section: consolidation of downtown and satellite jails as well as enhanced inmate care.
“What we’re trying to build is a center in the jail so that when we have to house people we’re going to be able to do it in the safest, most humane and constitutional way we can do it,” Chief Deputy Allen Jones said. “And that’s what we’re looking to improve out there.”
The jail consolidation would bring the current combined 313 beds down to 252 plus add a 30-bed medical and behavioral health unit. The plan also includes separation “pods” to provide adequate sight and sound separation between men and woman as well as between people from different local gangs. Other jail enhancements include the creation of a family contact visitation area and a new open booking area, which is designed to provide a humane unconfined space for non-violent detainees.
“A contact visitation would allow us to sit with family members, to be able to hold family members, touch them,” Snider said. “Keep the relationship going. It’s really important for people to maintain those ties.”
While sales tax money will go towards multiple projects and facilities around the county, a significant amount is estimated to go to the corrections facilities consolidation. Because of this, some community members and activists have questioned the plan.
“Build Programs Not Jails” is one such opponent. The organization has been pushing for shifting away from using county funding for law enforcement and jails since 2012. The group promotes the need for programs, such as mental health services and substance abuse treatments, which prevent people from pursuing crime. Build Programs Not Jails is currently campaigning against the referendum in hopes of seeing a new plan with more mental health efforts that provide alternatives to incarceration.
“We want to see community resources, such as a mental health center and such as a detox center, and not have that role taken by an expanded and modernized jail,” said Albert Stabler, a group member. “There’s not a whole lot of capacity for that in the community currently.”
Whether the sales tax referendum is passed or not, the county will need to spend a significant amount of money on jail facilities to comply to regulations. Following an audit in 2011 by the Department of Justice, the county entered into a settlement agreement to make the sheriff’s office and downtown jail compliant with the American Disabilities Act (ADA).
For example, the sheriff’s office and downtown jail’s current doorknobs are not disability friendly and need to be changed. However, if this referendum passes and the sheriff’s office relocates and the downtown jail consolidates with the satellite jail the county will not have to address or pay for repairs to make the current building meet ADA standards because it will no longer be in use.
“I don’t know where the county is going to get the money to comply with the decree and the negotiated agreement on that,” Jones said. “Either way a significant amount of money needs to be spent either on this building or a share of corrections facilities.”
Community Behavioral Health Facility Construction: $5,000,000
Sixty-six percent of individuals – who have been incarcerated five or more times – have received mental health or substance abuse services, according to the executive summary of the Behavioral Health Jail Diversion Initiative for Champaign County. To address mental health and substance abuse issue, the referendum suggests creating a 12 to 16-bed behavioral health service facility.
For example, Jones said, someone who breaks into another person’s house during a schizophrenic episode could use the facility. Typically, in such a situation, the options are to let offender go, take the offender to the hospital or arrest the offender. As an alternative, the behavioral health center would allow family or police to admit that person willingly so he could receive the appropriate health services.
Jones has been involved with other mental health efforts in the community as well, such as leading a Jail Diversion Projects committee that meets to work towards planning alternative programs to incarceration as well as working with the White House Data Driven Justice Initiative.
The initiative is a national effort to use data to identify issues and develop solutions for mental health and justice in local communities. As part of the White House Data Driven Justice Initiative, Champaign County was invited to the White House to talk about data initiatives and received a $150,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to form a committee and begin planning some sort of behavioral health facility center.
“The focus of everything that’s been going on is to try to decrease the use of the jail for those with mental illness and substance abuse disorders with non-violent offensive,” Jones said.
“Build Programs Not Jails” shares a similar goal, but the group wants to see more money distributed towards this effort.
“Providing community based mental health care services in conjunction and in partnership with law enforcement; that’s a model that we could combine,” Stabler said. “We support having a community based mental health facility. It would be small and we would like it to be even bigger. But that’s fundamentally in that model.”
Nursing Home: $5,000,000
The nursing home needs $2 million in deferred maintenance, including replacement of fire and door alarms as well as boilers. The nursing home is also paying off a facilities bond for some remedial work that took place after its initial construction. Additionally, many Medicaid applications are pending, and the money that Champaign is supposed to receive from the state to cover them has been delayed because of the state budget crisis.
This delay has left the county $180,000 short per month, Snider said. Further, while the state pays only $145 per day for Medicaid patients, the Medicaid patient cost in Champaign is about $200 per day, which puts more stress on the county nursing home finances, according to Snider. The referendum aims to help relieve some of this financial burden from the nursing home.
While “Build Programs Not Jails” supports financing the nursing home, members say they are worried that this portion of the referendum will distract voters from the fact that a large portion of money will go towards the jail consolidation plan.
“We’re concerned that this is essentially a way to get the folks who want to see long overdue maintenance taken care of and people in the nursing home in good conditions being forced to give the money to jail construction,” Stabler said.
Sheriff’s Office: $3,000,000
If the referendum is approved and the correctional facilities are consolidated, the sheriff’s office is likely to relocate to an existing building at the Illinois Law Enforcement Alarm System building on Main Street in Urbana.
Office construction would include two new entrances, one public and one for law enforcement personnel, office and conference space and records and evidence storage. The plan also includes a parking lot for visitors and staff.
The county recommended a few other projects that would account for much less of the overall spending. These efforts include replacing computer systems to upgrade the government’s technology platform, a garage consolidation plan and a replacement of the animal control facility.
Additionally, the action plan suggests that rather than spending money on deferred maintenance at the Brookens Administrative Center, the employee group should move to a new downtown Urbana location. This move would bring multiple government agencies closer to each other, as well as make the office more easily accessible to citizens.
This story was updated on Nov. 9 to correct the following: It was reported that the county sales tax is 9 percent. The sales tax actually is 7.5 percent in the county but ranges from 7.5 to 9 percent in cities in the county. The story reported a lawsuit with the Department of Justice over American Disabilities Act compliance; the county has a settlement agreement as the result of an audit. The story reported that a $180,000 a month shortage at the Nursing Home was due to the difference in cost and repayment rates from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, but it is primarily caused by the failure of the state to make reimbursements promptly.