Johnson County, Kansas – There haven't been many yard signs. You may have read an editorial or two in the newspaper. But the effort to renew a quarter-cent sales tax for public safety in Johnson County has been pretty low- profile so far. KCUR's Laura Ziegler reports on some of the arguments pro and con as the August 5th election draws near.
People spilled out of the courtroom door of Edwin Hall's dramatic hearing. Kelsey Smith's murderer was pleading his case the same day I was touring the Johnson County jail.
In spite of this coincidence, statistics show that violent crime in Johnson County is going down. Frank Denning, the county's button-down Sheriff, is hoping the renewal of a quarter -cent sales tax will fund law enforcement and public safety programs, like a new juvenile services center, and a new Crime Lab, that will help this trend continue.
TAPE SHERIFF DENNING:"I feel so strongly about moving forward with some of these initiatives, especially the Crime Lab. We're able to solve more crimes today with new technology, DNA and video technology like was used in this case, the Kelsey Smith case."
Nine inmates are currently on the maximum security floor of the old Olathe jail.
TAPE: "The guy over there, he's got double murder in Wyandotte and ag(aggravated) robbery. He'll stay here for how long? Til he goes for his case, then he'll go back to DOC, department of corrections. So could be a couple of years then? About a year and a half, while they fight his case."
Edwin Hall waited here for his hearing. So did John Robinson, the man convicted of hiding women's body parts in barrels. The county commissioners have earmarked sales tax revenues, if passed, to continue the expansion of the jail in Gardner, and to convert this building to an intake and booking facility.
Tape Officer Lovell: "My name is Deputy Lovell and we're getting ready to walk through to booking-- finger prints, mug shots. Time of day busiest? 3 O'clock in afternoon. Seriously? When courts get out. Not nighttime or weekends, like most people believe."
Johnson County is one of the fastest growing counties in the nation- exploding by more than 10 thousand people a year. Of those, says Deputy Tom Erikson...
TAPE: Tom Erickson: "It's a rough figure, but about 3% will of those will come through jail, so we figure we'll get about 300 new inmates a year."
Hundreds of prisoners are farmed out each year to other counties because of a lack of beds. Sheriff Denning and others argue the new facility will save the county millions in transport costs over the next 10-15 years.
But critics aren't buying it. Public Relations veteran Tracy Thomas is working hard to defeat the measure. She points out there is no sunset, the tax never ends. Cities are entitled to a third of the revenue and they aren't required to spend it on public safety. Finally, she argues this isn't the time to renew taxes.
TAPE: Tracy Thomas: "We're already paying hundreds of dollars extra for food and gas. Now is the time to trust ourselves to stand still. The county messed up 3 years ago by going ahead and starting a jail when they didn't have enough to pay for it."
Tape: "I'm iffy, right now I think I'd vote for it, but I'd like to see something on there that says 10 years we vote again.
I had to explain the details of the plan to the majority of the people I met in the parking lot of another local shopping area.
Tape: people in parking lot: " Uh have to think about it. I would vote for it as long as they used it for what they say they are using it for. I probably won't vote in the local election, but am I usually for a tax that never ends?? no."
Supporters of the three-quarter sales tax renewal are banking that residents of Johnson County will vote to preserve the safety and security they take for granted. But they'll have to wait until August 5th to see if pocketbook concerns have altered that assumption.