Leader Blues

Friday, May 26, 2006

TOP STORY >> Tax would boost size of county jail

BY JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader staff writer

In addition to considering an ambitious jail- expansion program funded by a new sales tax, the Pulaski County Public Safety Task Force is studying the feasibility of reorganizing policing to merge county deputies with North Little Rock police north of the Arkansas River, and with the Little Rock police south of the river.

In a report to the task force, which met Wednes-day night at Sherwood’s Bill Harmon Recreation Center, Pulaski County Comptroller Ron Quillin, considered staffing levels for the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office, taking into account not only salaries and benefits but health insurance premiums and holiday pay as well.

The task force members seem inclined to propose a quarter-penny county tax increase dedicated to the county jail which would double the capacity of the existing county detention center from 880 inmates to 1,778 in five years or less, depending on the type of financing.

Sherwood Mayor Bill Harmon said he favored short-term financing that might cost a little more at first but which would allow faster realization of the new prison space and saving interest in the long run.

According to Quillin’s findings, merging deputies with patrolmen north of the river at current levels would require the county toraise its pay, increasing benefits and salaries for 41 deputies and officers from about $1.8 million to about $2.5 million—an increase of about $620,000 a year.

South of the river, to merge deputies with Little Rock police would increase the salaries and benefits of 45 lawmen from about $2 million to $2.7 million, an increase of about $760,000.

Combined, it could cost the county an additional $1.4 million a year.

Committee chairman Judge Buddy Villines, noting the ever-increasing cost of energy, suggested considering geothermal heating and cooling as an upfront construction cost that could save a lot of money in the long run.

Glen Shwartz, a long-time advocate of legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana, testified that the county would need fewer jail beds if marijuana were decriminalized and if other relatively minor drug offenders were ticketed or rehabilitated instead of locked up.

A breakdown of prisoners in the county lockup on May 16 showed six out of 1,292 incarcerated solely for possession of marijuana.

Shwartz also charged that enforcing drug laws was racist, bad policy and contributed to “a growing contempt of the rule of law.”

Community activist Jim Lynch added that fewer jail beds would be needed if the community locked up only people it is afraid of, not people it’s mad at.

Villines said it would require a two-thirds majority of the quorum court to place a sales-tax increase on the ballot. Revenues from the quarter-cent sales tax would generate about $17 million in 2007 and increase by about 4 percent per year after that, according to Quillin.

Of that, $16.15 million would be available by state law to be budgeted.

The proposed time line shows full collection of the tax by January 2007, along with the opening of 250 minimum-security beds in a work- release center, with no capital costs.

A 192-bed minimum-security barracks would be designed by August 2007 and completed a year later and ready to open in September 2008 at a cost of $4.5 million.

Repair of the old jail would start in September 2008 and open in January 2009 at an estimated cost of $1.57 million, mostly for fixing the mechanical systems and the roof.

Construction of a new 296-bed medium and maximum-security pod would begin in January 2009 and be opened in January 2010 at a cost of $16.5 million.