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Debate jail plan, but stick to the facts

Given the misinformation swirling around the county’s jail proposal, it’s perfectly acceptable that Ashland City Council members want to be sure they understand all the facts before deciding whether to allow their constituents to vote on creating a taxing district to fund the project. What is not acceptable is for elected officials to spread falsehoods and misleading arguments on social media.

The Ashland council will have the last word on whether the proposal moves to the ballot after the Talent City Council voted Wednesday to not let Talent residents have a say. Talent Mayor Darby Ayers-Flood broke a tie in that decision.

The Ashland council voted 5-1 Tuesday to put off a final decision until the Dec. 3 council meeting. In the meantime, a few council members will meet privately with one county commissioner, Sheriff Nathan Sickler and others to discuss the proposal.

Councilor Julie Akins, in a Facebook post, made several false or misleading statements about the jail proposal. Despite Sickler’s assurances that the county needs about 600 beds for a functional jail now, but is proposing to build 800 beds to allow for future growth as the county’s population expands, she declared the county would immediately fill all 800, because “they get paid for heads on beds.”

Nonsense. Jailing more people than necessary would cost the county more money for more staffing. This is a public project, not a private, for-profit prison. The fact that the county contracts with the federal government to house a couple of dozen federal prisoners does not mean it can fill 200 extra beds to make money.

Akins and others also argue that Ashland residents would pay more toward the taxing district because property values are higher in Ashland than elsewhere in the county.

Sorry, but that’s how property taxes work. Everyone pays the same amount per $1,000 in assessed value. Suggesting that’s somehow unfair to wealthy Ashland residents is an odd argument to make in a progressive community.

To use an extreme example, the owner of a home assessed at $1 million — the market value would be even higher than that — already pays about $10,000 a year in property taxes. If the jail district passed, that owner’s tax bill would go up by $870 a year, or $72.50 a month. Most property owners would see an increase of $10 to $20 a month.

If Ashland residents don’t want to pay more taxes, they can vote no on the taxing district. If the measure passes anyway, that’s the way it goes. In any case, Ashland property owners consistently vote for tax proposals more frequently than the rest of the county.

Finally, Akins argues that “mass incarceration does not make any community better nor anyone safer.”

That’s actually true. But no one is asking for “mass incarceration.” The proposal is for a county jail adequate to serve a population of 217,000 that is projected to grow past 400,000 in the next 40 years.

The existing jail was too small the day it opened, 39 years ago. The county has grown by more than 80,000 people since then, and the jail situation has only gotten worse.

Seeking to avoid making the same mistake again, Sickler and county officials want to build a jail large enough to accommodate future population growth, not to lock up as many people as possible.

If the Ashland City Council votes to exclude its constituents from the proposed district, it would effectively kill the project, because the tax rate would have to be significantly higher to raise the same amount of money.

The proposed new jail would cost a lot. No one disputes that. The tax measure could well be voted down. But one city council shouldn’t exercise veto power over a proposal that would benefit the entire county.

And spreading false and misleading claims on social media is something the president does. We expect more from our local elected officials.

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