GREENFIELD — The vote was close, but in the end Hancock County residents rejected a referendum that would give county leaders the go-ahead to raise property taxes in order to help pay for the construction of a new jail.
A total of 5,509 (52.61 percent) voted against the referendum, while 4,962 (47.39 percent) yes votes were cast. But regardless of Tuesday’s vote, the issues at the current jail aren’t going anywhere, officials say; they’ll need to come up with a solution for addressing them.
The referendum offered one solution to pay for the proposed $55 million criminal justice complex, asking for voters’ permission to increase property taxes about 14 cents on every $100 of assessed value. The funds the increase generated would have been used to cover the cost of constructing a new jail and renovating several other criminal justice facilities.
Supporters of the project say building a new jail facility is the only solution to solving the current overcrowding issue. A study found the jail’s population will surge to more than 400 in the next 20 years. The only viable permanent solution is to construct a new facility, which will allow county leaders to renovate other criminal justice buildings to create more space for each of them, officials say.
But those against the project say the current plans for the new facility are costly, and they argue that other solutions should be considered.
The proposed schematic design of the new jail, presented by design firm RQAW at the end of April, would provide housing for more than 400 inmates and offer adequate recovery space for those dealing with mental health and addiction issues.
The project also includes renovations to the current courthouse roof, moves the probation and community corrections departments and includes money to purchase the land for the new jail building. The most suitable building location, just east of the current jail, would require the county to buy out the current residents and demolish the homes on that lot.
Now that voters have had their say, county officials will have to go back to the drawing board to find a way to fund the jail project — but now they have one less tool to work with, they say.
Hancock County Council President Bill Bolander said the next step will be to look at the remaining options, including raising the county’s income tax. He said an income tax hike could raise some of the money but raising it to cover the full $55 million price tag was out of the question.
“We can’t put a project that big all on income tax because our rate would be so out of whack compared to neighboring counties, no one would want to work here,” Bolander said.
The county could also consider scaling back the project from its current form, Bolander said.
Commissioner John Jessup, who is a vocal supporter of the project, said the biggest takeaway from Tuesday was how close the vote was. More people came out in support of the referendum than he’d anticipated, and it only reaffirms that county leaders need to find a solution that taxpayers can get on board with.
Ultimately, more voters balked at the idea of increasing their taxes than those who said they were willing to bite the bullet for what they saw as a much needed project.
Darlene Leonard and her husband, Glenn, both voted against the referendum. Their taxes are too high as is, Darlene said, and she thinks such funding should go toward other civic issues.
“Put that money into streets and schools,” she said.
Robert Hamilton, too, said his taxes were high enough without tacking on an additional cost.
“We’ve already had the assessors lift our (taxes) up, and now what? Now you’re going to ask me for more money?” Hamilton said.
The referendum received some support from voters who were willing to swallow the tax hike in order to pay for the services the county needs.
“I understand we all need to do our part in keeping the government open and functioning,” Mandy Kelley, from McCordsville, said. “We can’t expect them to do it all by themselves.”
Dianne Perry echoed those sentiments, saying she voted for the referendum even thought she wasn’t thrilled about a possible hike to her property taxes.
“I think its pretty clear they need more space at the jail,” she said.