Leader Blues

Friday, July 14, 2006

TOP STORY >>Villines calls for session on tax

By PAUL PETERSON
Leader staff writer

At a Little Rock press conference yesterday, Pulaski County Judge Floyd G. “Buddy” Villines an-nounced a special quorum court meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday to consider two ordinances, one calling for a special election to levy a quarter-cent sales tax for county detentions, and the other authorizing county participation in an inter-local agreement among eight cities to distribute all tax revenues to the county treasurer.

The election ordinance involves “acquiring, constructing, extending, improving, equipping, maintaining and operating County owned detention facilities,” namely the overcrowded county jail that has become a wholesale catch-and-release turnstile for criminals taken into custody with no room to hold them.

The second ordinance would authorize Pulaski County to continue participation in an inter-local agreement with Little Rock, North Little Rock, Jacksonville, Sherwood, Mau-melle, Alexander, Wrightsville and Cammack Village. Under the pact, all money harvested from the quarter-cent sales tax would go directly to the county treasurer.

Although not provided in the proposed ordinance, Sept. 12 repeatedly has been announced as the most likely election date, as the Quorum Court is expected to confirm next week.

After the press conference, Villines reemphasized the rationale calling for a special election instead of waiting until general elections in November.

“With the millions of dollars being spent on the governor’s race, it would be hard to get the message out about this among all the heavy campaigning going on around it. This is a serious public safety issue that doesn’t need to be thrown at the bottom of a general election ballot. Voters deserve a chance to decide on this separately.

Along with the tax vote, the quorum court’s administrative committee on Tuesday discussed revising the inter-local agreement that requires cities to help pay for jail operations.

Committee members suggested a complete overhaul of the county-cities agreement should voters approve the tax increase in the special election, and as of Friday, such a proposed ordinance has been drafted.

The 12-year-old pact stems from a 1990 agreement among Little Rock, North Little Rock, Jacksonville, Sherwood and Maumelle, which pay the county approximately what they spend to run their city jails, with incremental increases every five years.

The county has paid remaining costs while holding the cities’ prisoners.

According to Paul Mush-rush, Jacksonville’s finance director, the city currently pays the county $129,420 per year as its part of the agreement.

“In 2002, 2003 and 2004, we paid $100,000,” Mushrush said. “In 2005 and 2006, it rose to $125,000 each year for the basic agreement.

The additional $4,420 is an additional shared cost for things like the work release program.”

The county-wide agreement has governed jail funding since 1994, but wasn’t planned according to projected crime rates or anticipated expenses, but rather what cities were paying for their own jails.

Public safety task force members who recommended the sales tax increase also hope that the sales tax will relieve cities from paying the county to house prisoners.

In exchange for keeping that money, the cities would receive none of the new sales tax revenue.

County comptroller Ron Quillen said if cities are not freed from the inter-local agreement, they will receive almost all the new tax revenues, about 92 percent, leaving the county with few resources to add more jail space.

Villines said, “It’s of my conservative legal opinion that we need to change the inter-local agreement, otherwise it could be challenged to divide responsibilities among cities.”

Committee member Bob Johnson said, “We should replace parts of the local agreement, or redo or abolish the old one, amend it or draft a new one, should the one-fourth cent pass.”

In a June 19 letter to Villines, Little Rock Mayor Jim Dailey recommended that, should the sales tax pass, the county ordinance levying it should terminate the inter-local agreement at the end of fiscal 2006, prohibit the county jail from refusing to accept anyone in custody unless ordered by a federal court to do so, and that all tax revenue be added to the county’s jail operation funds.

A June 22 reply to Dailey’s letter by county attorney Karla Burnett validated Dailey’s concerns, but claimed “they have little to do with the tax itself and have no place on the ballot,” and said those issues could be resolved by ordinance or by inter-local agreement. If the tax is approved, she said the current agreement could be amended to terminate at the end of the fiscal year.

Burnett’s letter also said that state law gives the sheriff discretion to operate the jail and ensure safety and security for employees and inmates, and said the county “cannot and will not” blindly waive the sheriff’s discretional authority by either contract with cities or Quorum Court orders, which Dailey’s letter suggested be done by inter-local agreement.

Burnett said the money Dailey requested be added to annual jail funds isn’t derived from the sales revenues and that no such language even belongs in the ballot’s definition or title.

Regarding ballot titles at Tuesday’s meeting, Patricia Dicker said, “The ballot title needs to be a simplified as possible to avoid conflict and confusion about the wording and what the money will be used for.”

When asked where the money to finance the special election will come from, Villines said the election commission may have to be reimbursed, but that it has appropriated $100,000 just for special elections. Villines also said jail funding solutions are “too important to confuse in a general election.”