Leader Blues

Saturday, March 01, 2008

TOP STORY > >Inmates to build jail, JPs decide

Leader senior staff writer

In a special meeting Thursday, the Lonoke County Quorum Court voted unanimously to pursue a new, 140-bed, inmate-built jail and to put a one-year, one-penny sales tax increase before the voters on the May primary election ballot to pay for it.

The jail would be modeled on the one constructed by state prisoners in Fordyce several years ago for about $1.5 million, according to Larry Odom, chairman of Lonoke County’s building and jail committees.

“I want to build a twin to the Dallas County Jail,” he said.

Although he couldn’t promise that filling empty beds with inmates from other counties, the federal government and the Immigration Service would be a money maker, he noted that the Dallas County Jail last year netted nearly $500,000 from such activity.

Odom has been active for several years trying to solve the county’s jail problem and was the driving force behind the inmate-built jail and on deciding how to pay for it Thursday.

“I want to vote tonight,” he said.

“It was a very functional operation for (in today’s dollars) $3 million to $3.5 million,” said County Judge Charlie Troutman, who visited the Dallas County Jail. “It’s a bargain.”

“I like the simplicity and the idea of giving back to the taxpayers the sweat of these boys,” Odom said of the jail and the inmate labor.

Following a contentious debate over whether to raise property taxes or sales taxes, it was clear that there was not sufficient support for the property-tax increase, so all members present voted toput the sunset, sales tax increase before voters.

If the tax increase is approved, it is expected to raise about $3.5 million over its one-year life, which should be more than enough to build the jail with inmate help. The Dallas County Sheriff, himself a contractor, estimated that it would cost up to $2.5 million to replicate his jail, Odom said.

Court members said any money over what is needed should still be used for the jail.

“I’m voting for it, but I want you to know that I don’t have any warm fuzzies about this,” said JP Lynn Clarke.

The court will have to revisit the tax increase question at the March meeting in an ordinance that includes the formal ballot title. That would still allow the issue to be forwarded to the secretary of state’s office 50 days before the election, as required by law, Clarke figured.

Before voting to pursue the inmate-built jail, the quorum court rejected the stripped down, $499,000 version of a jail expansion, with most saying that was too much money to put into the decrepit, current jail.

In addition to rejecting the jail expansion, quorum court members also rejected the ideas of:

doing nothing;

adding 20 beds for $100,000 by expanding into the open space between two parallel wings of the existing jail;

a new turnkey, 92-bed contractor-built jail for $4.5 million;

buying four pre-constructed, modular jail units for $1.5 million to $2.5 million, then adding cooking facilities, concrete pads and renting a large crane.

The big problem is funding a new jail, said Troutman. “Give me $6 million and I’ll build you a jail,” he said. “Give me $3.5 million and I’ll build you a jail.”

Odom told the other justices that it would be their job between now and the May primary election to go to the people in their districts, explain the need for a new jail and encourage them to vote for it.

Justices also argued over whether to have a special election or put it on the primary ballot. Not only would a special election cost more, but it would also be more likely to pass.

“We need a new jail, but we don’t want to be perceived as sneaking and underhanded,” said JP Mark Edwards, objecting to a special election, where only a small number of people would turn out to vote.

“I’ve always said I’d never vote for a millage increase, said JP Richard Kyzer. He said that requires landowners to pay for the whole thing, which could be particularly hard on fixed income elderly, and lets renters off the hook.

The current jail is 30 to 40 years old, with a capacity of 62, but which has held as many as 110, with a recent high of 75, Odom said. There is no central control for cell doors, a “poor, poor” camera monitoring system and poor electrical and plumbing condition and fair heat and air conditioning.

In addition to getting a tax increase, the new jail would have to have a contractor to oversee the construction; blueprints that would pass the state Jail Standards Committee and a building permit from the city of Lonoke.

The new jail would require five additional jailer positions to cover it 24 hours a day, seven days a week, according to Sheriff Jim Roberson, including benefits. That would total about $200,000 a year for additional staffing.

Roberson said he favored the type jail approved by the court Thursday.