Leader Blues

Monday, July 03, 2006

TOP STORY >>Panel asks JPs to seek vote on jail

By PAUL PETERSON
Leader staff writer

Although Pulaski County can’t afford to add more beds to its jail, the county is willing to spend $100,000 for a special election for a sales tax to almost double the number of beds at the county jail.

On Tuesday, the Pulaski County Quorum Court threw out the idea of a private jail, and on Wednesday a task force opted to push for a quarter-cent sales tax.

The Pulaski County Jail task force believes the sales tax would give the county enough money to quickly build or reopen space to house 1,618 inmates. Currently the jail can only house 880 prisoners.

The task force has also called for a special election on the tax issue, rather than have it on the ballot in November’s general election. The recommended date for the special election is Sept. 12.

The Pulaski County Quorum Court will meet July 11 or possibly earlier to consider the tax and special election recommendations.

The tax, if approved by voters, would generate about $18 million a year and would allow the county to increase its jail budget from $16.8 million a year to more than $34 million per year.

On Tuesday, the quorum court said no to the idea of a privately-operated detention facility after the presenter failed to answer numerous questions and told the task force that they had no plans to take in felons.

“We don’t accept felons,” said Greg Caldwell, a marketing representative for the Central Arkansas Regional Detention Facility, which is being built in Lonoke County.

“Well, everyone at our county lockup is a felon,” said Justice of the Peace Charles Roberson. “Why are we even having this discussion, and why didn’t any of us know this before now?”

Caldwell’s presentation offering a “private solution to a public problem” – the county jail crisis — came as a special request by the court and took place before new business on the agenda, resulting in a court apology for time wasted.

Caldwell held the interest of the standing-room-only audience and court members with a barrage of pie charts and bar graphs.

His slide presentation comparing operational expenses between CARDC and the overflowing county jail in Little Rock painted a convincing portrait, with estimates of daily costs per bed, total cost per day-per inmate and projected savings by the county of $4.5 million a year. Caldwell essentially claimed

That CARDC could reduce the county’s $52,000 annual cost per inmate to $39,600.
But he was stymied once the floor was opened for discussion.

Questions regarding previous clients, job opportunities, county contract fees based upon specific criminal charges, bed reservations, financial stability and verification of the company’s performance record dealt a staggering blow to Caldwell’s momentum.

He refused to disclose any financial numbers and said privately held companies have no obligation to do so. Caldwell’s routine replies of, “I’ll have to re-fer you to my supervisors and operations manager David Hamilton,” prompted Justice of the Peace Phil Stowers to ask for the job titles and roles of the CARDC office-management team and said he would be contacting them soon.

“Why isn’t Hamilton here then, if he has all the answers?,” Stowers asked.

When asked simple questions, such as how long had his employers been in business, Caldwell replied, “We have over 75 years of management experience,” and fell quiet when a court member asked, “Managing what?”

The final salvo to Caldwell resulted when asked how contract fees were rated according to levels of charges against inmates, such as how much more it would cost to reserve a certain number of misdemeanor or felony beds.
In other quorum court business:

• Discussion continued to flourish when the topic shifted to the poor performance of air conditioning units at the sheriff’s office and the funding source for part-time custodians at district court facilities. County comptroller Ron Quillen said repair estimates total approximately $40,000.
• The court approved issuance of county public-facility board student housing bonds for residential quarters on the campus of Philander Smith College Little Rock.