Do Platte County voters want a new sales tax to fund a prison?

Platte County Sheriff Mark Owen stands in the jail cell at the detention center. Owen, who is not running for re-election, supports the vote to expand the facility in Platte City.

Platte County voters will decide next month whether they want to pay a half-cent sales tax for the next 20 years to expand the jail, more than doubling its current capacity.

The Platte City jail expansion project is expected to cost $85 million, which the county plans to issue in general obligation bonds and then pay for through a new proposed sales tax increase. Voters will have to approve each measure separately — One of the questions on the ballot was to retire $85 million in bonds, and the other was to add a sales tax.

In addition to the expansion costs, the sales tax is expected to raise hundreds of millions of dollars, totaling $400 million, which will fund additional positions and services at the prison.

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An attempt to expand the facility in 2019 failed.

Platte County Sheriff Mark Owen, who is not running for re-election, said the jail is overcrowded. As of Monday, 202 people were being held at the facility, which was built in 1998. The jail’s capacity is 180. Owen said that has increased to 240.

According to online records, people were arrested on charges ranging from traffic violations like speeding and driving with a suspended license to more serious crimes like murder. The vast majority were held pretrial, meaning they had not yet been convicted or punished, but either a judge ordered them to remain behind bars for the safety of the community or they could not afford bail.

Some cells originally designed for one person housed three. During a tour of the prison Monday, several cells with bunk beds had a mattress on the floor to accommodate a third person. Some detainees have heard complaints about overcrowding.

The cell at the Platte County Jail has two bunk beds and a mattress on the floor for a third person. Katie Moore

Owen, who supports the sales tax, said older parts of the current prison, such as vents, are rusting. Those materials could be torn off and turned into weapons.

Sometimes the sheriff’s office has to send people to the Cass and Buchanan County Jails when they exceed their capacity, which involves additional costs in terms of staff time and transport.

How big should a prison be?

If the ballot questions pass, the prison would be expanded to 470 beds, a 161% increase in capacity. The funds would go toward renovating the current facility, adding a new building and covering operating costs.

Construction is expected to begin in 2025. HMN Architects, an Overland Park firm that has designed several prisons in the region, won the contract for the project in late 2023. Plans include the ability to better separate people accused of violent and nonviolent crimes, create more cells for people with special medical or mental health needs and repurpose the holding area.

The sheriff said he expects the jail population to grow in the coming years. The county hired a national jail consultant to calculate the number of beds based on growth and trends in the county. The prison population fluctuates not only because of crime rates but also because of political decisions that determine who should be incarcerated and for how long.

The number of prison beds has increased over the past decade, while the occupancy rate at local jails has decreased, according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Activists from groups like Decarcerate KC oppose the ongoing expansion of prisons in the metropolis.

Jackson County is embarking on a $300 million-plus, 1,000-bed jail project. Kansas City is also pursuing a new detention center.

“Our local governments continue to ask taxpayers to pay for prisons instead of investing in care,” said Chris Lopez of Decarcerate KC.

“At what point do we refocus and really think about the root causes?”

Dylan Pyles said the organization supports programs, reforms and strategies that prevent people from entering the criminal justice system in the first place. That includes investing in services like health care and education.

“I think it’s very important to think about where your tax dollars are best spent,” Pyles said.

At the Platte County Jail, county officials are trying to more than double capacity. Katie Moore

Tax spread over 20 years?

If the proposal passes, Platte County residents would pay an additional tax on purchases, including online sales, for the next 20 years. For example, consumers would pay an additional $0.05 per $10 and $0.50 per $100.

Over the life of the tax, revenues from it will total hundreds of millions of dollars more than the expansion itself would have generated.

The measure says the county could use the funds to operate and maintain the jail. With the sheriff’s anticipated increase in the number of people at the jail, he said they will also need additional staff.

Platte County expects the sales tax to raise about $400 million. Owen said it would pay for 26 additional positions, as well as more services, including mental health care and educational programs.

This plan is expected to meet the county’s needs through 2048.

Platte County Treasurer Rob Willard said he supports the jail expansion but expressed criticism of the proposed tax increase, particularly its length.

“I support the principle, but not the plan,” Willard, a former deputy prosecutor, said in a news release. “Twenty years is too long for a tax like this. If approved, it would disenfranchise an entire generation of Platte County voters from acting as a check on government.”

“The vote takes place every ten years and allows people to judge whether the government is managing money well.”

Ballot Paper Contents

Early voting will take place on August 6. Voters will cast their votes on the following issues:

Question 1 is: Shall Platte County, Missouri, issue general purpose bonds in an amount not to exceed $85,000,000 to design, acquire, construct, install, improve, furnish, and equip an expanded and improved county jail facility, including, without limitation, the provision of more space for the isolation of violent and sexual offenders and the provision of expanded mental health care and education for inmates?

Question 2 is: Should Platte County, Missouri, be authorized to levy a sales tax throughout the county for the purpose of designing, acquiring, constructing, installing, improving, equipping, operating, and maintaining an enlarged and improved detention center for inmates in the county, including, without limitation, the payment of indebtedness on general purpose bonds issued for such purpose, at the rate of one-half of one percent for a period of twenty years from the date the tax is first levied?

Question 1 requires a 4/7 majority, and Question 2 a simple majority, according to the county. Both must pass to proceed with expansion.

Katie Moore, an entrepreneurship and accountability reporter, joined The Kansas City Star in 2019. She covers justice issues, including policing, prison conditions and the death penalty. She is a graduate of the University of Kansas and began her reporting career in 2015 in her hometown of Topeka, Kansas.