Four years after opening the new Portage County jail, officials are drawing up a shopping list before they have to close out a special tax fund that paid for the new facility.
Portage County commissioners have given the OK to Sheriff Duane Kaley's list of prospective purchases totaling $138,923 and ranging from $179 for a new phone in the staff dining area, to $41,287 for a new 15-passenger bus.
But Portage County Auditor Janet Esposito said she's not sure all the purchases are appropriate to be paid out of the jail construction fund.
"The construction fund should have been closed by now," Esposito said Friday. "When (the list) gets down here I might have to ask for a (legal) opinion if (commissioners) haven't," she said.
Commissioners have gotten other legal opinions on spending from the fund in the past, according to Assistant Prosecutor Denise Smith, who heads the civil division. "But nobody's asked that question yet," about the bus, she said.
"Certainly we'll work with the purchasing department and the prosecutor to make sure its appropriate." Commissioner Chris Smeiles said.
Last month, commissioners approved spending $67,000 from the fund to put drywall in four equipment rooms to meet the state fire marshal's approval. Ceilings in the rooms were left open above the fire sprinklers, and the fire marshal had ordered that the spaces be closed in.
Commissioners said they are exploring recouping that cost from the jail's architect or general contractor if it was a design error.
The bus and another $3,300 worth of shackles, handcuffs and chains are for transporting prisoners to and from the county courthouse in Ravenna. At the courthouse, a secure holding area was created out of part of the former jail for inmates going to court.
Commissioner Kathleen Chandler said the board was assured the fund could properly pay for the purchases.
"That absolutely has to be assured _ that whatever purchases are made, that they fall within the ballot language of the fund," Chandler said, adding commissioners had notified the sheriff they planned to close out the fund and now was the time to make any purchases that were appropriate.
Money for the construction fund comes from a 0.25 percent sales tax voters approved in 1991. Since then, retail sales have grown so that the fund now takes in about $2 million annually. A few months ago Esposito said the fund would have enough in it by September to retire the jail bonds.
"In September, I'm sure we'll have enough money to pay off the bonds," she said.
It might move up to August, she said Friday.
"The taxpayers gave us the money in good faith. And I think that should be honored," Esposito said.
She said she needs a firm figure from commissioners as to how much more is going to be spent out of the fund, which now has a balance of $705,084. She said she has requested that number from commissioners twice _ in February and again late last month.
Chandler said commissioners have a meeting scheduled this week to see how they go about removing the tax. "We're also going to ask citizens if they are interested in renewing the tax for another purpose," she said. Reinstating the tax for another purpose could only be done by a vote, with November's general election the earliest opportunity.
Several groups have expressed an interest in the sales tax if voters approved, including using the money for county road improvements. A license fee hike approved by commissioners was thrown out by voters last year.
Continuing the tax longer than necessary could raise problems from the state auditor and tax commissioner for county officials, Esposito said.
"If there's money in there, we'll have to write to the state tax commissioner to approve transfer from the construction to the debt fund. Whatever money is left over would then be transferred to the general fund" with the approval of the tax commissioner and common pleas court, Esposito said.
Esposito said she is concerned that the fund be closed promptly.
"If we go one month too long, we could be a half million over" what is needed, she said. "My concern is, there could be a lawsuit" by people paying the sales tax, she said.