Leader Blues

Friday, August 25, 2006

TOP STORY >>Jail tax seen as a safety solution

IN SHORT: Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines says funds would reduce area crime.

Leader staff writer

With just two weeks left until they decide the fate of a quarter-cent sales tax increase dedicated to nearly doubling the size of the county jail and running it, Pulaski County voters must decide whether or not keeping burglars, meth cooks and drunk drivers off neighborhood streets is worth 25 cents on every $100 they spend, ac-cording to Pulaski County Judge Floyd (Buddy) Villines. The additional tax would amount to $6.25 on a $2,500 large-screen television or 38 cents on a $15 music CD.

The current jail holds 880 inmates, but without the new tax, would be reduced to 800 next year. If the tax is approved, the jail will hold 1,618 by 2008.

“We’d be good to go for 15 or 20 years,” Villines estimated. Villines said violent crime is up and that Little Rock already has 58 murders this year, more than last year’s 12-month total. The election will be held Sept. 12, with early voting beginning Monday at the County Courthouse and at other sites, including Jacksonville city Hall, on Sept. 4.

Villines, who was interviewed in mortage banker John Hardwick’s office, said assuming the usual number of voters turn up to vote no on a tax increase, the county needs to get 34,000 to 40,000 to the polls for the special election Sept. 12.

Hardwick was Jacksonville Mayor Tommy Swaim’s representative on the ad hoc Public Safety Task Force.

Supporters say the tax could keep more criminals in jail—that it could save your life or possessions by making sure Little Rock, North Little Rock, Jacksonville, Sherwood and Pulaski County officials have a jail to keep serious offenders off the streets.

Opponents say Villines and the others are using scare tactics.

Here’s what Villines says voters would get for their money:

- the reopening of the 250-bed work-release center.

- a new 196-bed mini-mum/medium security unit.

- 292 new maximum security beds.

- repair of the existing, dilapidated jail.

- at least $750,000 a year for prevention, intervention and treatment programs.

- dedicated funds to operate the jail without relying on contributions from the local cities.

Villines answered criticism leveled on The Leader editorial page challenging the $100,000 additional cost of the special election saying the tax increase stands a much better chance of passage in a stand-alone election than in a general election.

According to state law, only school matters may be decided at the Sept. 4 school board elections.
Also, by approving a tax increase in September, the first revenues will be collected in January instead of April, meaning new beds can come on line earlier.

“It’s an economic development factor,” said First Arkansas Bank and Trust president Larry Wilson, who stopped into the meeting long enough to say he favored the tax. “For people to prosper, we need to lock these rascals up,” he said.

Jim Lynch, the only public-safety task force member not to vote for putting the tax on the ballot (he abstained), wants more money spent instead on prevention and intervention. He has said too many drug users get long sentences. We have to stop locking up people we don’t like and concentrate on those we’re afraid of, he told the task force earlier this year.

Villines said his departments have found $2.5 million in federal money to put into prevention and intervention.

In addition, the tax would provide $750,000 a year and North Little Rock Mayor Pat Hayes has said he would favor putting $680,000 a year into such programs. That’s the amount the city currently kicks into county-jail operations and maintenance as part of the mutual-aid compact.

The county is helping as many as 500 youngsters a year with prevention or intervention programs.