In less than two weeks, Garfield County residents will consider a sales tax increase to expand and renovate the overcrowded county jail.
Voters in the upcoming Aug. 23 primary election will see a proposal on their ballots to raise county sales tax by 0.30 percent, or 30 cents on every $100 spent, for 20 years to Effective January 1, 2023, to fund the operation, maintenance, construction, equipping and improvement of the Garfield County Detention Center and its facilities.
Jail Administrator Ben Crooks first proposed the approximately $8.5 million expansion and renovation to county commissioners in February and has spent the past few months meeting with various stakeholders and community members across the Garfield County to present the plan.
If passed, about $2.7 million of American Rescue Plan Act funds would also be earmarked for the expansion and renovation.
Crooks, who was a private consultant for strategic correctional planning and spent 10 years working with the federal government in Mexico and its prison system before moving to Enid, said the prison had been overcapacity for more than a decade since its opened in 2005, which is why he said expansion and renovation were needed.
An increasingly overcrowded prison
The GCDF has exceeded operating capacity of 193 beds for more than 10 consecutive years, Crooks said. It has also exceeded the design capacity of 232 beds for nine of the last 11 years.
“That means we have a lot of people on the floor almost every day,” Crooks said. “(Overcrowding) means you’re going to have more incidents, more potential lawsuits and more risk of liability.”
The number of detainees as of FridayAugust 12, was approximately 242, and the highest GCDF reached was 285 inmates, including approximately 70 inmates awaiting release by the Department of Corrections.
GCDF, located at 1020 S. 10th, was designed for maximum guard beds only, which is the highest classification and most expensive to build.
Crooks said that at that time, in the mid-1990s and 2000s, other prisons being built had all three classifications: maximum, medium and minimum.
“We have more maximum guard beds than we know what to do with,” Crooks said. “We need dormitories – low-cost, low-custody housing units to accommodate some of the non-violent offenders we have.”
One of the problems with overcrowding, Crooks said, is that nonviolent offenders are housed with violent offenders because there’s no more room, and sometimes they become victims themselves.
The proposal would expand the prison by 82 beds in dormitory-style accommodation, add 16,000 square feet and renovate part of the current 45,000 square foot building.
“It’s not just about ‘Hey, we need beds.’ It’s, ‘What are the consequences going to be if we sit down again and say, we don’t have to do anything until disaster strikes,’ which I’m trying to avoid,” Crooks said. .
Before the current facility opened in 2005, the county jail was located on the fourth floor of the Garfield County Courthouse.
The U.S. Department of Justice had determined that certain prison conditions violated inmates’ constitutional rights and recommended remedial action, prompting construction of the current facility on 10th South.
According to a 2006 News & Eagle article, the then-new facility was already full—meaning it was at 80% capacity—a year after it opened.
“You can pretend there is no problem. You can keep pretending that if you ignore it, it’ll go away,” Crooks said, “but what’s going to happen is taxpayers are going to pay more in the long run because eventually the feds are going to come back into The DOJ will come back and say, “OK, here’s what you need to do,” and then you have to figure it out from there, and it won’t be any cheaper later.
Crooks said he looked at several sources of funding for the expansion and renovation of the prison and ended up settling for sales tax because it would be ‘distributed more evenly’ and raise funds visitors.
The current sales tax for the prison was approved by voters in 2002 to cover the cost of building the facility, and in 2018 a continuation of this sales tax was approved and will continue until 2033.
The potential sales tax increase in the proposal is an additional tax.
Lahoma has the highest sales tax rate in Garfield County, 9.35%. Currently, Garfield County has the seventh lowest sales tax rate among Oklahoma’s 77 counties, according to www.sales-taxes.com.
One concern about the county sales tax increase raised by Jon Blankenship, CEO of the Greater Enid Chamber of Commerce, and Todd Earl, chairman of the chamber council, is that the overall sales tax rate of Enid would be higher than cities like Edmond, Norman, Oklahoma City and Yukon – which are retail competitors.
“(Enid) is already significantly higher than most of these towns,” Blankenship said. “It’s not that I think people look at sales tax rates when they go to make a purchase, but I think retailers look.”
Blankenship and Earl added that there was a need to expand and renovate the prison due to overcrowding, that they did not oppose it and that the prison was trying to solve an immediate problem that was dealt with every day.
“We just want to make sure what we’re doing is the best solution for our citizens,” Blankenship said.
The total sales tax rate in Enid – the most populous town in Garfield County – is 9.1%, with 4.5% going to the state, 4.25% to the city and 0.35% to the county.
Of the city’s 4.25% sales tax, 2% is general fund operating revenue; 1% is transferred to Enid Municipal Authority to finance investment projects, which expires in 2042; 1% is used to finance the Kaw Lake pipeline and associated water projects, which expire in 2052; and 0.25% is the public safety tax, split equally between the Enid Fire Department and the Enid Police Department.
The county sales tax rate is currently 0.35%, including 0.25% for the GCDF.
If passed, the county sales tax rate would increase to 0.65%.
“I understand that no one wants to spend money on a prison, and my goal isn’t just to spend money or grow the prison,” Crooks said. “It’s to meet the needs and protect the county – the taxpayers of the county protected from bad mistakes and bad decisions, and all I can do is provide the information and let the people decide.”
A federal lawsuit was filed in June 2017, a year after the death of Anthony Huff, a GCDF inmate who was placed in a restraint chair by prison staff for more than 55 hours before being found unconscious and declared dead.
The lawsuit accusing Garfield County officials of negligence in Huff’s death was settled for $12.5 million in 2019 and was paid for by estate taxes.
Crooks said the sales tax would pay for the cost of building the facility within four years and then fund 100% of the prison’s operations from there.
That would mean that about $100,000 a month — about $1.2 million a year — of funds currently spent by the county on prison operations would be available for other needs in the county.
County commissioners – who in May cleared the proposal to be on the Aug. 23 ballot – have yet to discuss what would be done with those funds, however, said District 1 County Commissioner Marc Bolz. .
“We haven’t assigned it yet,” he said. “If (the proposal) passes, then we will have this discussion.”
As part of the prison proposal, medical, administrative and visiting spaces would be built, as well as space for educational and religious programs that can “have a positive change in the lives of inmates,” Crooks said.
In late July, Crooks said around 42% of inmates had a mental health condition and a full-time mental health counselor had been hired at the prison.
“We know there are mental health issues, but we work hard to address them every day,” he said.
Blankenship said he would like to see Enid address mental health and addiction issues and homelessness rather than just “investing in the backend”.
“Do I think there is a need? Yes, there is a need,” he said. “There is clearly an overcrowding problem. It is difficult to separate the areas of the prison population, as it should be. No one is questioning the need, but we are trying to alleviate those other issues.
In 2016, Oklahoma voters approved State Question 780, which reclassified many simple misdemeanors of drug possession and low-level property offenses to misdemeanors instead of felonies.
SQ 781 was also passed and created the County Community Safety Investment Fund to cover the cost of mental health treatment in all 77 counties in the state. However, not a penny has been invested in CCSIF, according to an Oklahoma Watch article earlier this month.
Oklahoma lawmakers instead earmarked funds for a separate diversion program run by state agencies, even though SQ 781 “was clear in its intent that all 77 counties could have funding for mental health courts. , drug courts, and sentencing diversion programs,” the article said. .
Crooks said anyone with questions or wanting more information regarding the prison expansion and renovation can contact him by calling the GCDF, (580) 548-2429.