Leader Blues

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

TOP STORY > > Lonoke jail splits JPs on paying for 20 bed expansion

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

A member of the Lonoke County Building Committee wants to use 8 percent of the county’s share of the countywide penny sales tax to pay for a new jail, but the committee chairman says it won’t generate enough money and has other ideas. Until a couple of weeks ago, the county was poised to build a 20-bed addition to the existing jail, but the low bid was $595,000, 50 percent more than the court and the architects had estimated.

Quorum court member Lynn Clarke says that the county could raise $200,000 a year to finance a jail construction bond by redirecting about $150,000 a year from the County Road and Bridge Fund and $50,000 a year from the Library Fund. She said that could pay off a $4 million to $4.5 million bond to pay for a new jail to hold 100 to 120 prisoners.

JP Larry Odom, who chairs the committee, says that would only raise enough money to pay the interest on the loan without reducing the principal.

On a per-capita basis, the county and the towns within it share the county sales tax, with the county receiving less than half the total revenue.

From a dedicated millage, the Lonoke County library generates about $800,000 a year, much more than it spends, and could easily forego its 2 percent share of the county sales tax—which is a separate revenue stream, according to Clarke.

The Road and Bridge Department receives 75 percent of the county’s share of the sales tax and Clarke said that County Judge Charlie Troutman said he’d be willing to cut that share to 69 percent to help get a new jail.

Clarke said that all Republican justices except Odom favored the plan and that at least one Democrat, Richard Kyzer did as well.

Asked the effect of transferring 5 percent to 6 percent of the county tax from the road and bridge department, Troutman said the department was “real important to me, but I won’t even miss a stroke.”

That’s because the revenue from the tax has been increasing annually. He said he wasn’t sure if the quorum court had the authority to change the distribution of the tax.

Troutman said it would probably take $300,000 a year to pay the interest and also pay the bond issue off in 25 years or so, more than the $200,000 Clarke is currently talking about. “You have to give her credit, she’s working hard (on this),” Troutman said.

Of the jail in Fordyce, he said it had no bells and whistles and someone would have to supervise a group of Act 309 inmates in its construction, but that it was worth investigating.

He said he’s also considering adding on in the middle of the “U” shaped sheriff’s office and jail, which could be done for as little as $100,000.

“I hope someone has some plans together by the (February 21 meeting),” Troutman said.

The quorum court has the authority to change the way in which the county divides its share of the county sales tax money, Clarke said, but all residents in the county would vote on whether or not to pass a bond issue to construct the jail.

“I’m on my fifth go around on the jail, and really we’re no closer to solving it than when we first started,” Odom said.
County residents voted down a sales-tax increase to build a new jail a couple of years ago, he said.

He said that a $4.5 million bond at 5 percent interest would cost $225,000 a year just to pay the interest.

He said the county does have about $450,000 it could put toward the jail, but that basically there was no money to pay off the rest of the principal and that banks would not be inclined to make such loans. “We haven’t done enough number crunching,” he added.

Odom suggested using inmate labor to build a bare-bones facility to house 140 inmates, with some beds reserved for state or federal prisoners to provide a revenue stream of as much as $300,000 to $500,000 a year.

Odom and Troutman visited just such a jail in Fordyce (Dallas County) in the past couple of weeks. That jail cost about $1.3 million to build in 1999.

He suggested that a 140-bed jail could be built in Lonoke for a little more than $2 million. He said the millage rate could be increased for a couple of years from the current level of 3.5 mills to 5 mills to pay off the loan, then dropped back to just over 3.5 mills to help cover the expense of operating a jail. The millage increase would require a majority of the residents who voted on the issue.

Odom had two other concerns about Clarke’s proposal. He said the north end of the county needed road improvements that would be difficult to pay for if the road-and-bridge fund was being “robbed” to pay for a new jail.

Also, he said, the cities should help pay for a new jail, since they keep inmates in the Lonoke County Jail.