The Lee County Supervisors are looking to at least start the process to borrow up to $85 million that will largely go toward building a new jail and judicial complex. The resolution they passed led to an almost immediate petition drive by community groups and leaders seeking to place the bond issue before voters.
The petition should not be needed. Supervisors, in this instance, should voluntarily put the issue before voters.
There is little doubt that the current Lee County Adult Jail needs – at minimum – some serious renovations and upgrades. An outside consultant hired by the county to study the current jail recommended a new facility be built as part of a larger judicial complex, saying that upgrades would be insufficient over time.
Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson has been advocating for a new jail for some time, and supervisors seem largely onboard. The question, however, has always been how to pay for it.
Until now, the most recent plan was to gain approval from the Legislature to place a 1% sales tax increase before voters to finance the jail. However, county officials have found little support among the Lee County legislative delegation for such a bill, and neither House nor Senate leaders are likely to buck the wishes of the local delegation.
Now the county is considering borrowing the money itself. To be fair, county officials say that just because they are starting the process does not mean they will immediately borrow the money. They are seeking the bonds now while interest rates are favorable, but they will have up to two years to actually decide if they will borrow the money.
But that does not matter. What matters is that borrowing $85 million will mean a significant tax increase for county residents. At the current interest rates, the county estimates ad valorem taxes would increase anywhere from 3.5 to 6 mils, based on how much they actually borrow.
Supervisors are well within their rights to issue the bonds on their own, unless 1,500 Lee County voters sign a petition opposing the bond issue before the scheduled Aug. 2 public hearing.
But just because supervisors are within their rights to do so doesn’t mean they should. They can simply – by resolution – put the bond issue on the ballot. If voters approve it, then they will still have two years to decide.
This is a significant decision that has real financial ramifications for county citizens. A bond issue on the ballot would give supervisors time to educate voters on their plans and voters time to study those plans and make an informed decision. Most of all, it would require a real plan be in place and presented for all to see.