Leader Blues

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

TOP STORY >>Villines hoping to pass jail tax

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

Three of the largest challenges facing Pulaski County in implementing the recommendations of UALR Task Force on Public Safety will be voter approval of a new quarter-cent sales tax, an in-depth financial audit and a major-league study of personnel and functions to maximize efficiency and minimize waste and duplication, County Judge Buddy Villines said this week.

The task force made 16 specific recommendations concerning segregation of law-enforcement money, accounting, transparency, accountability, greater reliance on prevention, intervention and treatment and the aforementioned dedicated jail-tax increase to fund construction, remodeling, maintenance and operation of an adequate jail.

Villines sent Charles Hathaway, former University of Arkansas at Little Rock chancellor and chairman of the task force, a letter informing him of actions the county was or would undertake to implement the recommendations of the report, and two days later, Hathaway wrote to compliment the judge on his quick action.

“I had not expected such a commitment in only one week,” Hathaway wrote. “I find the responses very satisfactory.”
Villines said Monday that it would probably cost about $500,000 — money the county doesn’t yet have — to hire national consultants to audit both the county’s budget and use of manpower, but that money for the financial audit could well be available by the end of the year.

Villines said it was important to undertake those expensive audits before the 2010 census, when the county’s share of sales taxes would decrease as a larger proportion of the county residents move to or are incorporated into a city.
He said he appreciated the task force’s effort.

“It’s kind of laid down a game plan,” said the judge. “It is achievable and it can work.

“This has given us a chance to put some things together that need to be put together,” said Villines, but noting that while there are things he can do unilaterally as the county judge, others require action by the quorum court, the sheriff’s office, local judges and the voting public.

The task force confirmed what Villines, the quorum court and the previous public safety task force all concluded — that it would take a permanent quarter-cent sales tax “in order to have the facility and programs we need,” he said.

“This confirms what we’ve been saying for years,” Villines said. “In order to have the facility and programs we need, it takes a quarter cent to do it.”

Pulaski County voters turned down exactly such a tax 16,112 to 12,088 in September 2006, in part because many voters believe the county had the money but was wasteful, putting it into the Big Dam Bridge, for instance.”

Villines says money that went into the bridge could not be used legally for jail purposes.

He said he hoped that the report of the task force would assure voters that there is no money available to expand and operate the county detention center unless they do approve a new tax. In addition to the new tax, the task force recommended that mayors of Pulaski County cities reassign their contractual contribution from the jail to “evidence-based” prevention, intervention and treatment programs.

“The sheriff’s challenge is to put together a comprehensive public safety program and take it to the voters,” Villines said.