Lawrence County candidates push for jail to be built
IRONTON -- An incumbent and his challenger for a position on the Lawrence County Board of Commissioners both say they will push for construction of a new county jail.
Their support for a new jail comes at a time when Lawrence County is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to house prisoners at other county jails and still have an average of 20 to 40 people each day sleeping on mats on the floor in the county's 40-year-old jail.
Bill Pratt, 39, a Chesapeake area dairy farmer who has served as commissioner for 18 months, faces 39-year-old Carl Robinson, an Ironton area resident who lost his job at the Ohio River Valley Juvenile Correctional Facility in Franklin Furnace, Ohio, when Gov. John Kasich closed the youth prison.
Both are seeking a four-year term as commissioner in the Nov. 6 general election. Robinson is a Democrat and Pratt is a Republican.
Robinson said 358 people lost their jobs when the state closed the prison. About 150 of them were from Lawrence County, he said.
Pratt was appointed commissioner when Jason Stephens was elected county auditor. Pratt also served on the Chesapeake Board of Education, the Collins Career Center Board and the Ironton Metropolitan Housing Authority for 14 years.
He supports building a new jail, but hasn't decided whether a levy to finance the estimated $8 million construction cost is needed.
"We should take half the casino revenue and set it aside for construction of a new jail," Pratt said. "If predictions hold true, we could bring in $2.5 million in about four years. We could seek bonds to help pay for the additional costs. It costs us $400,000 a year to house prisoners. We could use that money to help pay off bonds."
Robinson agrees the county needs a new jail and can use money from four Ohio casinos to help finance it.
"I worked in corrections for more than 14 years," Robinson said. "We have to work with the sheriff on this. I don't think a tax levy will work. So many people feel they're taxed to death, so I don't think that will work. We need to set up a long-range plan and seek grants and state funds."
The county spent nearly $275,000 last year to house prisoners at other county jails due to overcrowding conditions at the 52-bed jail in Ironton, said Chris Kline, deputy Lawrence County auditor. Thus far this year, the county has spent more than $240,000 to house prisoners in other jails through the first nine months. If those costs stay constant, the cost to house prisoners outside Lawrence County could be about $320,000.
"My priorities are that citizens are safe and protected," Robinson said. "We need to fully fund the sheriff. I also would like to see some money for local fire departments. My main priority is to bring new jobs to Lawrence County. We also need more help from the state."
Some help is coming in the form of revenues from the new casinos opening around the state. The county received $55,000 earlier this year and are expected to receive another quarterly payment at the end of October. While estimates vary, officials say the casino revenue to Lawrence County could reach $1 million a year.
While Pratt would like to see some of that put aside for a new jail, he also would like to see some of the money designated for senior services. The Ironton-Lawrence County Area Community Action Organization closed the senior center in Sybene earlier this year due to a cutback in funds, Pratt said. "I would like to see it reopened through a partnership with the CAO or another group."
Pratt also supports buying the old post office across the street from the courthouse from the Ironton Board of Education for $350,000. He doesn't support a proposal to buy and upgrade the old Memorial Hall building. "I think that's too costly," he said. "We need to get an architect in to look at the old post office building. We could put 911 dispatchers, the county Emergency Management Agency, the Emergency Medical Services ambulance office, the coroner's office, the county health department and some sheriff's department personnel there."
"We could tear down the EMA building and another building with community development block grant funds and use that property for a jail addition or a new jail at that site," Pratt said. "That would fix the biggest problem we have."
Robinson would like to see the old Memorial Hall building saved, but doesn't think the county should get involved. "$3.2 million doesn't seem like a good investment for county funds," he said. "If grant money is available, that would be great. We need more space for 911 dispatchers and other offices. I don't like the way 911 and Emergency Medical Services dispatchers were combined. It was done hastily. They didn't talk to the unions."
"It's all about leadership," Robinson said. "I plan to work with the other commissioners to do what's best for the people. I opposed Senate Bill 5, which was soundly defeated in Ohio. We need to stand up for what's right. We need resources and respect for Lawrence County."
"I come from an agricultural background," Pratt said. "I know how to work hard and make good decisions. I've been a self-employed businessman for 17 years. The main responsibility of a commissioner is to make decisions. The voters need to have confidence in their commissioners and believe they'll make good decisions. I think I have a record that shows that."