Guernsey-co. Commissioner Wilson testifies in support of Ohio H.B. 101

Special to Daily Jeffersonian

COLUMBUS – Commissioner Dave Wilson addressed issues at the Guernsey County Jail when he testified before the Ohio House Infrastructure and Rural Development Committee on Wednesday in support of House Bill 101.

The bill will provide an ongoing, long-term process by which Ohio can help counties with one of their most urgent needs – the replacement and renovation of aging jail facilities. 

“Counties provide the foundation for the administration of the justice system in Ohio,” Wilson said during his testimony representing his Guernsey County and the County Commissioners Association of Ohio.

“Counties devote the majority of their General Fund budgets for this purpose, and the operation and maintenance of the county jail is typically the largest single expense in criminal justice administration.”

House Bill 101 is sponsored by Rep. Jason Stephens (R-Lima) and Rep. Jay Edwards (R-Nelsonville) along with 23 co-sponsors to address the crucial issue.

In 2019, the CCAO and Buckeye State Sheriffs’ Association surveyed its members about  jail construction and renovation needs. CCAO members said they will require $1.3 billion statewide over the next five years to bring their facilities up to standards.

“Problems with aging and inadequate facilities exist across the state, and in counties of all sizes,” said Wilson.

The CCAO is grateful for the $50 million included in the most recent capital budget passed during the 133rd General Assembly, but the legislation did not establish an ongoing commitment from the state.

“Given the vast financial requirements involved, we believe that ongoing state assistance is necessary in order to help counties meet their jail facility needs in a comprehensive and timely manner,” said Wilson.

House Bill 101 is modeled after the capital funding formula used for Ohio schools to establish a mechanism by which the state will prioritize funding for jail construction projects.

The Department of Rehabilitation and Correction would conduct an assessment of jail facilities to identify those with the greatest need for replacement or repair.

The state’s cost share for the project would be based on an assessment of property valuation and sales tax capacity, so that the state share of the project will be greatest in counties with the least financial capacity.

The state has not had an ongoing capital construction program to assist county jails since 2003.

“We believe that it is time to strengthen the state-county partnership by taking this step,” said Wilson. “House Bill 101 uses a proven approach to prioritize needs and manage projects effectively while safeguarding taxpayer dollars.”

In Guernsey County, county commissioners and law enforcement officials have worked on the daunting challenge of expanding the county jail for more than 10 years.

“We believe that this long-term program will help us, and other counties, finally be able to provide a safe and secure setting for the county’s inmate population,” Wilson told the committee.

Guernsey County is in a uniquely challenging situation.

“We are the only rural county in the state bisected by not one, but two interstate highways,” said Wilson of Interstate 70 and 77. “For those trafficking illicit drugs, we are easily accessible from Cleveland, Akron-Canton, Columbus, Pittsburgh and points beyond.

“In other words, we must deal with ‘big city drug traffic’ on a ‘small county budget,'” added Wilson, who offered multiple examples to solidify his position.

The current Guernsey County Jail opened in 1994 with officials at that time believing that 66 beds (54 for men and 12 for women) would serve the county indefinitely.

But in 1994, no one dreamed the county would be dealing with a drug epidemic on the current scale, or that females would average a 40% share of the jail’s population. It is estimated that 95% of the jail population is directly or indirectly related to illegal drugs.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the jail population could swell to more than 130 inmates. The last two weekends inmate totals have reached the low to mid-90s with daily average in the 80s.

“We are hopeful that passage of this essential bill will provide the funds necessary to create the jail capacity we so sorely need,” concluded Wilson.

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