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Voters will decide Tuesday whether to approve a 3/8-cent county sales tax that combines two existing 1/8-cent sales taxes with a new 1/8-cent sales tax to pay for the rising cost of operating the Comanche County Detention Center.
Gail Turner, chairman of the Comanche County commissioners, said the new combined tax is a necessity that will benefit everyone.
The new 1/8-cent sales tax that will fund the jail along with the renewal of the existing 1/8- cent sales tax the jail already receives is a result of more crime and rising costs for food, fuel and other necessities, Turner said.
He said the county is required by state law to operate a jail, and increasing crime in Lawton and the county as a whole has led to more inmates in the county jail. More local inmates in the jail means there are fewer beds the county can rent to the state and the federal governments to help pay for the operation of the jail.
While those rental revenues have declined in recent years, the daily expenses of housing and feeding inmates have risen, Turner said. He said the current 1/8-cent tax is not enough to cover the cost of operating the jail, even though he said the county has been frugal with taxpayers’ money.
Turner said the daily cost per inmate at the detention center is $32.50, which is significantly lower than many other jails in Oklahoma. He said the Grady County and Oklahoma County jails pay about $41 per inmate daily.
As for the rest of the combined 1/8-cent sales tax, he said it will benefit important county agencies, including the Comanche County Industrial Development Authority, the sheriff’s department, the fairgrounds and the volunteer fire departments; all of which, except for the development authority, will receive a larger cut of the combined tax than they receive of the current sales tax.
Turner also said the county is proud of its stewardship of tax money. The money in the combined tax is strictly earmarked for its specified purposes and cannot be spent any other way, he added.
The combined sales tax would help contribute to the economic well-being of Comanche County, Turner said.
Stephens County Sheriff Wayne McKinney says he never would have dreamed when he was first elected in 2009 that he would one day have five people accused of murder in his jail all at the same time, all under the age of 21. But he did this past year.
Likewise, he never would have thought that gang members would become such a problem, including one inmate associated with the “Honduran mafia” who recently set a fire in his cell, forcing the dangerous evacuation of inmates to another part of the lockup and hospital treatment of a jailer for smoke inhalation. But the sheriff did.
Mirroring Stephens County, the average age of inmates at the Comanche County Detention Center has fallen in recent years, Chief Administrator William Hobbs said. And he, too, has seen an increase in the number of gang members and in gang violence in the jail.
“When I first started (the average age) was probably 35-40. As time has passed, they’re getting younger and younger. The average now is below 30,” Hobbs said. “I may have four or five gangs I’m trying to keep separate, but I don’t have the room.”
Adding to their daily challenges, both McKinney and Hobbs said they have had to deal with increasing numbers of females being incarcerated and also with inmates who don’t speak English. As jail populations have risen, they’ve had more and more problems, too, with offenders who are addicted to drugs or who have serious mental health issues, or both.
“The mental health problems keep increasing mainly because the state has reduced funding for helping people with their mental health problems,” Hobbs said. “A lot of people medicate themselves with street drugs, then when they get locked up their mental health problems come back. So now you’ve got to deal with them on a different level.”
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