Leader Blues

Saturday, September 09, 2006

TOP STORY>>Officials stress safety

IN SHORT: A joint effort to pass a quarter-cent sales tax is being met with stiff opposition.

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader staff writer

Pulaski County officialdom supports the proposed quarter-cent sales-tax increase on Tuesday’s special election ballot to fund construction, renovation, maintenance and operation of new and existing jail beds. Elected officials and business groups have pressed their considerable machinery into service of that cause.

The jail 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 re-duced from 1,125 beds to 880 beds in the last year.

Now County Judge Floyd “Buddy” Villines, Sheriff Ran-dy Johnson, area police chiefs and business and political leaders, as well as the ad hoc group Citizens For Safe Neighborhoods, have mobilized for passage of the measure.

Opponents counter that the county has not managed its money efficiently, that the old jail could be rehabilitated for less than $1 million and that officials are fear-mongering.

“Giving more money to jails to fight crime is like giving money to cemeteries to fight cancer,” said Jim Lynch, the only member of the 24-person task force not to support the new tax. Lynch, a member of Taxpayers Against Wasteful Spending, said it was too late to fight crime by the time someone’s in jail.

Two-thirds of the folks in jail have drug or alcohol abuse histories and low levels of education, according to Lynch. That’s why the money should go toward prevention, intervention, treatment and education, he said.

Lynch is not swayed by pro-mises to make more money available for those programs. He added that the quorum court has the authority to devote money from any sales tax to schools.

Lynch said the jail problem could have been addressed with a one-eighth-cent sales tax.
But most of those speaking out favor the tax.

Last week, chiefs of all Pulaski County law enforcement agencies held a press conference to encourage voters to approve the measure at Tuesday’s special election.

Larry Wilson, president of First Arkansas Bank and Trust, calls it an economic development issue.
The Sherwood Chamber of Commerce encouraged its members to vote for the measure and to ask coworkers, employees, family and friends to vote early for the jail tax.

The Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce approved a resolution endorsing the jail tax Aug. 17, saying that closure of the facility “results in the release of individuals charged with serious offenses and there is a proven relationship between increased crime and the number of days the jail is closed.”

In a slick, full-color brochure mailed to a large number of registered county voters, including some in Jacksonville, Citizens for Safe Neighborhoods writes “Pulaski County citizens are continually at risk because our jail is full, causing criminals to be set free” including “drug dealers, meth lab operators, burglars and arsonists.”

Members of that committee, chaired by two former members of the Public Safety Jail Task Force, include other task force members and people representing the mayors.

The money for the mass mailing of the four-color brochure has all come from private donations, according to co-chair Sandra Brown.

Brown said she didn’t know the cost of the brochure or the mailing. Brown said she believed the committee’s mailbox, P.O .Box 1, belongs to the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Brown said once the quorum court called the special election, she and her co-chair, Scott Miller, decided “to take it to the next level.”

Brown said she works in the private sector and that she and other committee members were strictly volunteers.
In announcing its support of the tax, the Little Rock Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge No. 17, announced its official endorsement on Sept. 5.

“This is a decision of critical importance for our communities,” said Mike Verkler, lodge president.
“We have the opportunity to help keep our neighborhoods safe by ensuring that the criminals our police officers arrest stay where they belong—behind bars.”

The F.O.P. Lodge No. 17 is the recognized bargaining union of the Little Rock Police Depart-ment, with about 500 members, Verkler said.

Other groups reported endorsing the jail tax include the Downtown Partnership, the Homebuilders Association of Greater Little Rock, all of the mayors of Pulaski County municipalities and their respective Chambers of Commerce.
Early voting is already underway.