Leader Blues

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

TOP STORY >> Budget is still issue to county officials

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader staff writer

Although Pulaski County substations at Gravel Ridge and McAlmont have lost five road deputies between them because of budget cuts, Justice of the Peace Bob Johnson of Jacksonville says the only way he could support any new tax would be to address area law enforcement problems across the board.

Johnson, a Republican, said the county needs $24 million to $25 million a year to not only open the required number of jail beds and hire back jailers and deputies, but also to get people arrested, through the courts, into drug rehabilitation programs and to do intervention on the front end to keep people off drugs and out of the system.

Johnson said that a one-eighth or one-quarter-cent county sales tax increase could fund all the needed improvements, not just more jail beds and more deputies.

“We go to look at the long term,” Johnson said. “Can we do something real about crime? I’d support it if we could do something to stop these meth-heads. We have some crime issues that are severe.”

Johnson said the courts are backed up, the county coroner has ceded much of his responsibility to the state crime lab, which has reportedly been backed up two years in processing some evidence.

The county had to cut about $7 million from the $40 million worth of non-designated revenues for this year in order to balance the budget. Before the cuts, the county was slated to pick up about $19 million of the $22 million expense of running the jail, even though about 75 percent of those incarcerated in it are from Little Rock or North Little Rock.

“We ended up with two fewer deputies in each of the six districts,” said John Rehrauer, spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office. Gravel Ridge and McAlmont will have eight road deputies, not including supervisors, Rehrauer said.

“I don’t think there’s any question that there will be slower response and prioritizing of calls,” he said. “If it’s not an emergency, it’ll take longer to get there.”

“The feedback from the field is that they are running from call to call,” he added.
The Pulaski County Detention Center, which was reduced from 1,125 beds last year to 800 before settling at 880-bed capacity, is full now and will be full from now on, he said. The additional 80 beds became available when the cites within the county, including Jacksonville, Sherwood, Little Rock and North Little Rock, agreed to kick in one-time money to help. The facility is the only real lockup in the county.

Johnson said he supports the idea of a citizens task force to determine what is needed for the jail and law enforcement and how to fund it on a permanent basis.

“I don’t want to get involved in something without any teeth,” Johnson said. “This task force forming itself is good — the citizens that care trying to do something about the problem.”