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Lawless still seeks funds to move jail

Once more the disputed $500,000 has been offered as a means to move the county jail to the now closed Ohio River Valley Juvenile Correctional Facility.

Lawrence County Sheriff Jeff Lawless asked the commission at its regular meeting on Thursday if any money had been placed in his budget, which is already projecting a shortfall of $100,000, to make the move.

“Five hundred thousand has been put in a special line item for the jail move,” commission president Les Boggs replied.

In December at a budget commission meeting county auditor Jason Stephens refused to bring before that body a request to add the $500,000 to the amount the budget commission was certifying for the county to spend. He said the figures for projected revenue would not support that action.

The two other budget commission members — county treasurer Stephen Burcham and prosecuting attorney Brigham Anderson — however, voted to earmark the $500,000 for the move to Franklin Furnace. That is when Anderson requested an opinion from Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine on whether the budget commission had to follow a majority vote.

“Members of a county budget commission have equal votes on matters that come before the budget commission,” DeWine wrote. “No other statute requires the votes of a county budget commission’s members to be weighted differently.”

Despite that opinion Stephens said that money would not be certified because it doesn’t exist.

“It doesn’t change the fact we don’t have the money to run the ORV,” Stephens said at that time. “We haven’t received the revenue in question.”

According to chief deputy auditor Chris Kline, as of Thursday the county still does not have the $500,000 in revenue.

The state had offered the county a section of the ORV for its jail as an answer to the severe overcrowding at the Fifth Street facility. The remainder of the center will be used by the STAR Community Justice Center for an expansion of its drug rehabilitation program. Originally both agencies expected to move in by the first of April. That date was moved back to June and now STAR plans to move in August.

“(The question of money) causes me a huge concern, whether we will be able to get the jail up and operational this year, ” Lawless said after the meeting. Following the commission meeting was the third session of the ad hoc jail committee formed by Boggs to find ways to build a jail in the county by 2020. At the last meeting Boggs had asked for members to come up with ways to create a revenue stream to fund building and operating a jail.

At that meeting were Boggs, commissioner Bill Pratt, Lawless, EMS director Buddy Fry and Ronald Thomas, a concerned citizen.

Thomas suggested two possible funding streams: putting on one cent tax on a gallon of gasoline and a portion of the hotel tax.

“Multiple streams to tap into,” Thomas said.

Boggs said the county would not have the authority to levy a tax on fuel and that the county only gets a portion of the hotel tax.

Out of that 6 percent tax, all goes to the county with it keeping 5 percent as administrative fees to fund the general fund portion of the auditor’s office. The rest is divided among the chamber of commerce, the city of Ironton and Fayette Township — the latter two are locales for the county’s two hotels. In 2014, that tax brought in $119,547.20.

Fry volunteered to test the waters on a levy to support a jail.

“We could try to get petitions to put on a levy dedicated to building and operating a new jail,” Fry said. “The biggest question is would it pass. I don’t know because I don’t know if people realize the seriousness of the problem. Some how people have to know this is a real problem. … Let the people decide.”

However, no matter the number of voters who would agree to a vote on a levy, putting the issue on the ballot is exclusively the domain of the commissioners.

“We would be willing to look at anything that comes on our desk,” Boggs told Fry.

Almost two years ago, two levies to provide a dedicated revenue stream for the EMS and 911 dispatching did not get on the ballot. Pratt supported it, but Boggs and commissioner Freddie Hayes did not.