Leader Blues

Monday, February 19, 2007

TOP STORY >> Lonoke QC adamant about jail expansion

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader staff writer

Unless its jail architects quickly come up with a plan that satisfies the reticent Lonoke City Council, the Lonoke County Quorum Court seems intent upon expanding its jail with or without permission from the city. The city council Monday night unanimously turned thumbs down on the county’s planned 22-bed jail expansion, which it says would infringe on city right-of-way and sidewalks. County Judge Charlie Troutman told the quorum court Thursday night that architects now believe they can draw a plan the city can live with. Troutman said he would drag the architect over to Lonoke to review the situation Friday, but by late Friday afternoon, the Foster and Taggert architect had not returned his call.

But the quorum court quickly turned to talk of taking the needed land by right of eminent domain, and Justice Larry Odom, head of the county building committee, says he’s had enough. “It’s time to pin our ears back, get in the water and try to get to the other side,” Odom told fellow justices. “I think it’s time to start building.” Both Odom and Troutman said time was of the essence. Lonoke County has about $225,000 in General Improvement Funds earmarked by local legislators last session for renovation of the jail but needs to spend or commit that money soon—especially if they hope for money from the current legislature.

Odom said the city and Alderman Pat Howell in particular had drawn a line in the sand and would not approve any city jail expansion. “What they are asking us to do is a violation of the city law,” Howell said Monday. “We don’t have the authority to give them permission to break the law.”

“Even if they close the street, they still can’t build on top of a public utility,” said Howell, who says the water line runs under the proposed addition. “They can build anything they want to build as long as it conforms to city building code,” he added. The county previously attached its 911 call center onto the old jail, encroaching on city-owned land without a variance or a building permit, according to Howell. Troutman said Thursday night that the county did have a building permit for the 911 center—but that it doesn’t need one. Justice Mike Dolan said the minority—4,500 Lonoke residents—shouldn’t be able to impose its will on the 58,000 county residents.

Odom reminded the quorum court members, five of whom were sworn in only in January, that the county already had been sued twice for $3 million because of a rape and a hanging in the overcrowded jail. County attorney Jeff Sikes reminded the justices that taking the land by right of eminent domain would require court action, followed by court challenges to the appeals court and supreme court level.