News Local/State

Champaign Co. Sales Tax Proposal Up Against Opponents Fighting Jail Expansion

Two yard signs, one for and one against the Champaign County Facilities Sales Tax referendum.

Yard signs present support and opposition for the Champaign County Facilities Sales Tax referendum. Illinois Public Media

“No New Tax For Jails” is the message on yard signs opposing Champaign County’s sales tax referendum. Opponents of the quarter-cent sales tax say it will expand the county jail system, tempting county officials to put more people --- especially minorities – behind bars. 

But supporters say the tax will finance needed maintenance on county buildings, of which work on the county jail is just one part.

Evelyn Reynolds with the Champaign-Urbana chapter of Black Lives Matters says the sales tax is projected to raise roughly $50-million before it expires in 12 years. But she says $32-million out of that would go towards closing the downtown Urbana jail and expanding the satellite location --- a figure she calls “shocking” and “unacceptable”.

Kristina Khan with the group Build Programs Not Jails agrees. She contends that county official only added other facility projects to the referendum to make it look like the ballot item was not solely about jail construction.

Champaign County Board President Pattsi Petrie has a different opinion. And she disputes Reynolds’ $32-million figure for the county jail project. (The figure appears in a 2015 consultant's report on proposed jail improvements). The Champaign Democrat says the jail project would only cost about $12.8 million, as cited in the county's Facilities Action Plan "Draft C" released in September. The $12.8 million figure would be about a quarter of the projected revenue from the proposed sales tax. She says the rest of the revenue from the new tax would pay for maintenance on the county government’s other buildings.

“All 22 buildings in one way or the other”, said Petrie. “But it’s the courthouse, the J-D (Juvenile Detention) Center, the sheriff’s office, parts of the old nursing home, the downtown jail, the satellite jail, whether they are aggregated or not. “

Petrie uses the word “aggregated” to refer to a $12.8-million-dollar plan to close the older jail in downtown Urbana, and consolidate jail operations in the newer satellite jail on the city’s east side. Petrie says that after renovations, the satellite jail would have fewer inmate beds than the current two-jail system. But she says more beds would be usable, because they would be configured in line with rules keeping certain inmates separate.

And Petrie says the expanded and renovated satellite jail would have more facilities specifically for inmates with medical and mental health needs. More medical and mental health care for jail inmates has been a major concern for opponents of the referendum, including Khan with Build Programs Not Jails. Khan has doubts about the promise of special facilities for inmates needing care, because she hasn’t seen proposals to fund their operation.

“There’s no plan of medical staff for that, or what that would actually look like to run a mental health facility within the jail, there’s no substance to it”, said Khan. “It’s just the actual facility – you have be able to run it, staff it, and we don’t want people to have to feel like their last recourse is go to the jail for mental health issues.”

Petrie says the Champaign County Sheriff’s Department is working on putting the operation of an expanded jail medical and mental health facility into the county budget, although no specifics are available at this stage.

The county board chair says if voters reject the sales tax in the November 8th election, the maintenance needs of Champaign County buildings will still remain. In particular, Petrie says she’s concerned about a deadline set by the U-S Justice Department to make county buildings compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act. And she fears that the U-S Justice Department may set a similar deadline on compliance with its five-year-old order to close the jail in downtown Urbana.