Cleveland County voters will go to the polls Tuesday, this time to vote on a one-fourth of one cent county sales tax for the construction and operation of the new county jail. Polls are open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday. In-person absentee voting continues 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday.

The term is 20 years or whenever the bond debt is retired, whichever comes first. The jail would be built on land already owned by the county at 24th Avenue NW and Franklin Road.

It will cost a little over $40 million to build a new detention center. Commissioners, acting as the Cleveland County Justice Authority, determined a sales tax would be the best way to finance the construction.

The Cleveland County Detention Center, in the 200 block of South Jones Avenue in Norman, is the only detention center in the county and was built to house a maximum 177 prisoners per day. The last several years, the jail has averaged 200-215 per day.

The Oklahoma State Department of Health has told the county commissioners that something has to be done or the health department could shut the jail down or fine the county up to $10,000 per day. An average of 15-25 prisoners are housed in Pottawatomie County and other places at a cost of $20-$30 per prisoner per day.

"A sales tax has much less effect on the county," said District 3 Commissioner Rusty Sullivan. "Ad valorem affects the home owners. Every Monday morning when we get the jail report, 30-35 percent of the inmates in the jail live outside the county. About 30-35 percent of the sales tax comes from outside the county so they should have to pay their own way.

"I don't like taxes, nobody likes taxes," Sullivan said. "But this is something that has been thrust upon us that we have to address."

While the Norman Chamber of Commerce understands the need for the county to construct a new jail, board members decided to take a neutral position.

"The (Norman) Chamber (of Commerce) understands the need for Cleveland County to construct a new jail, but has decided not to take a position neither supporting or opposing the sales tax proposal," said Kyla McMoran, chamber director, in a letter to The Transcript.

There has been a misconception that building the jail is only a Norman city problem. However, the whole county will be affected, Sullivan said.

"This will affect Lexington, Noble, Norman, Moore and south Oklahoma City," said Sullivan, chairman of the Cleveland County Justice Authority. "This is a countywide problem, not just a Norman problem. I think people misunderstand that."

"If the feds come in, they can force you to build a jail and they can take a sizable judgment against us," he said. "Then the courts could place the fine on ad valorem taxes and we will be forced to pay that within three years and that would raise ad valorem taxes considerably."

"Eventually we will have to build," he said. "The jail was built when the county population was 160,000. Now the population is 236,000. The state said we need a minimum of three beds per 1,000 population."

George Skinner, chairman of the county commissioners, has been on the board since the overcrowding problems started, five or six years ago. When asked why the problems are now being addressed he said they "didn't want to rush into it."

"And not get caught up in the messes that Grady and Pott county got into," Skinner said. "We want to make sure each step we take is the right one. It takes a while to get plans and drawings, and funding."

"If the sales tax fails, we will have to revisit the jail situation and come up with a plan to make sure our numbers stay below the 177 beds," he said. "We may have to cut back on the number of inmates we accept and the cities and towns will have to find other houses for their inmates."

That will cause a burden for the county cities and towns.

Deana Standridge police chief of Lexington, said there is nowhere else for her department to take its prisoners.

"We do need a new jail and need a facility to take these people when we do arrest them," she said.

State jail inspector Don Jones said overcrowding is not the only problem with the county jail. He cited problems with the ventilation system, security electronics, detention locking devices and other areas of concern.

In a letter to The Transcript, he said "the outbreak of the TB virus and SARS infection (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and the staph infection MRSA have increased the need for adequately constructed jail and prison facilities.

"The Cleveland County facility is a text book example of a facility in dire need of replacement. The HAVC system re-circulates 'bad air,' air that carries viruses and other communicable diseases. This poses a threat to the inmates and staff alike," Jones wrote.

Ninety-four percent of the inmates currently detained in the county jail are there on felony charges, Sheriff Don Holyfield said.

"The majority are charged with one or more count of murder, kidnapping, rape, assault, armed robbery, embezzlement, drunk and disorderly, breaking and entering and driving under the influence of alcohol."

The judges use drug court, pre-trial and work release programs for the less serious offenders.

"The jail has reached the point of saturation with no more options," Holyfield said.

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