Leader Blues

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

TOP STORY >>Sales tax for jail is rejected by voters

By JOHN HOFHEIMER and RICK KRON
Leader staff writer

All of the Pulaski County mayors were for it. So were all the chiefs of police, chambers of commerce and police fraternal organizations. But the voters said no on Tuesday. With nearly all precincts reporting, 16,112 Pulaski County residents voted against the proposed quarter-cent sales tax, while 12,088 voted for it.

The quarter-cent sales tax, which would have raised about $17 million annually, was to be dedicated to building new Pulaski County jail facilities, fixing old ones and running them. Tax collections would have started in January, according to County Judge Floyd “Buddy” Villines. Two previous attempts to pass similar jail taxes failed. “I believe we have a lot of people roaming the streets that need to be in jail,” Villines said. “I’m really concerned. “It didn’t do well in North Little Rock, “said Villines. “There was a lot of voter uncertainty. It just wasn’t going to happen.”

The county spends about $16.8 million to fund jail operations, according to Villines, and each of the county’s eight municipalities chip in a percentage. Jacksonville kicks in $125,000 annually. The judge said that unless the cities kick in another $800,000 to $1 million next year, as they did this year, the county would have to reduce the number of jail beds from 880 to 800 from a recent level of 1,125.

Because of a late, but growing, anti-tax sentiment, Villines had projected at least 34,000 to 40,000 voters would be needed to pass the levy. As it turned out, fewer than 30,000 residents voted. Villines has said that the original capacity of the current detention center wasn’t enough to sustain projected inmate increases, even when it opened in 1994. “By the time we opened 800, we needed 1,300 to 1,400 beds,” he said. “We’ve been 10 years on the slide and have hit the wall.”

The quorum court, sheriff’s department, mayors and others will now have to look at alternative ways to add extra beds to the jail or find other ways of dealing with criminals. Asked if there were any other options, Villines said, “I don’t know of any. The task force looked. They didn’t find any. We’ll just finance the operation we have.”

Past recommendations have included reopening the warehouse work center, using private firms to house medium and low-risk inmates, generate revenue by assessments such as those added to county services, create a plea-bargain arrangement to “move prisoners through the system” faster and lobby the state to increase county funding for housing inmates until they are transferred to prison. Villines had pushed for this special election, which cost the county about $100,000.

In meetings this summer, Villines stressed the importance of holding a special election as soon as possible in order to avoid muddling the issue with the general elections in November. The infusion of new, dedicated money would have allowed the county to hold about 1,618 inmates once the entire building and repair plan was completed by 2008.

The current jail facility has been closed to all but violent offenders since before January and the County Detention Center, which must house all inmates in the county, has been reduced from 1,125 beds to 880 beds in the last year.