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COAST's Shifting Line on Jail 'Crisis'

By Kevin Osborne · August 20th, 2008 · News
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In one of life's little ironies, an anti-tax group that prides itself on trying to save taxpayer money and stop government waste actually helped set the stage for squandering millions of dollars in taxpayer money on an unneeded expense.

When the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST) was trying to reelect its loyal pal, Hamilton County Commissioner Phil Heimlich, in 2006, its leaders helped push Heimlich's plan to rent extra jail space from Butler County at a cost of $9.9 million.

The extra space was needed, Heimlich said, to handle Hamilton County's overflow of prisoners until he could get a new jail built here, financed by a sales tax hike. Without the changes, Hamilton County would have to release some prisoners early because there would simply be no room to house them, Heimlich warned ominously.

Voters rejected the tax hike and also booted Heimlich from office. Under pressure from Sheriff Simon Leis, county commissioners proposed a different sales tax increase last year, again to build a new jail. Voters again told them "no."

Many voters were skeptical about the need for a new jail, and new statistics seem to prove them correct. The number of prisoners being released early decreased 83 percent in the past year, while the number of people arrested and released after being booked due to overcrowding dropped 22 percent, statistics reveal.

The numbers fell despite the sheriff recently closing 238 beds at the aging Queensgate jail due to budget cuts.

Nowadays, COAST's leaders send conflicting signals about Hamilton County's alleged jail overcrowding problem, all the while hoping no one notices their shifting position and how much it cost taxpayers.

Although COAST technically remained neutral on Heimlich's 2006 tax proposal, its leaders individually lobbied for the tax to help Heimlich. One leader, State Rep. Tom Brinkman Jr. (R-Mount Lookout), spoke to a Westwood neighborhood club urging it to support the proposal. Another leader, local attorney Christopher Finney, served as Heimlich's de facto campaign manager and persuaded Heimlich to make the jail plan the centerpiece of his reelection bid.

After David Pepper beat Heimlich and Democrats wrested away control of the county commission from Republicans, COAST opposed the second attempt to raise the sales tax and build a new jail. Now the group trumpets its efforts in stopping the unnecessary spending.

Hamilton County officials are now making numerous cuts in services due mostly to two factors. The county faces a $24.4 million shortfall next year because its reserve account -- the "rainy day" fund to cover emergencies -- was depleted to pay for the Butler County jail space and to settle lawsuits alleging misconduct by the ex-county coroner, Republican Carl Parrott.

The biggest drain on the reserve were the three coroner-related settlements involving lawsuits that alleged organs were harvested from corpses and photographs were taken of corpses for an art project, both without consent of relatives. Those settlements totaled $19 million.

The Butler County jail deal involved renting 300 jail beds every night for 19 months. For much of that time, the beds weren't used but taxpayers had to pay regardless.

The bottom line: Heimlich and Parrott reduced the county's reserves by about $30 million; if that cash was still in reserve, the current budget crunch wouldn't exist.

Asked recently if the county has a jail crisis -- as Heimlich repeated frequently two years ago -- Finney demurs.

"The data seems pretty clear now, with 20/20 hindsight, that (extra jail space) was not needed," he says, adding that statistics reveal there "may be (an) ever so slight problem as evidenced by the female process-only and early release numbers, but hardly anything close to a 'crisis.' "

Love him or hate him, the uber-savvy Finney is no dummy. The question persists, then, whether COAST purposely turned a blind eye to the bogus jail claims by Heimlich and the related Butler County boondoggle back in 2006 or if the group compromised its values to help a political ally.


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