Leader Blues

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

EDITORIAL >>Still no room in Pulaski jail

Pulaski County government sure enough has cleaned up its act and may be ready to repair the shambles it made of the correctional system that is supposed to provide a little safety to a quarter-million people. But politics is going to hold it at bay a while longer and the imperiled citizenry will just have to wait.

All of that was clear from the second review of county finances by the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s task force and the county’s reaction. Let us all be grateful to the university for taking its community-service role seriously and helping the county government restore some minimal competence. It finished 2007 with an actual surplus, a reversal of years of deficit spending that led to closing much of the jail.

Now it would be nice if the county accepted the proffered help of Dr. Charles Hathaway, the former UALR chancellor who headed the task force, in two other areas. The county, he said, should figure out how it got that $4.7 million surplus — from revenue growth or from operational economies. It’s important because that should determine what the county should do with it, specifically whether it can put that money into jail repairs or operations. The county got into its mess by casually spending reserves on operations until suddenly it had to do something drastic like shutting down part of the jail.

And it surely should take up the chancellor’s offer to have UALR’s MBAs train the members of the quorum court on the basics of government finance, how to read financial reports and audits. The justices of the peace, good-hearted souls all of them, were collectively over their heads dealing with a mammoth operation where finances were overmatched against needs and demands for services. They were not helped by having to depend on the advice of a grifter who somehow got the job of comptroller, the county’s chief financial officer. He is now in the penitentiary.

It was in the midst of all that two years ago that the county went to the voters with a proposal to raise the county sales tax to repair and expand the county jail and hire the people to run it. The voters were having none of it. They weren’t going to turn over even more millions of their taxes to these keystone cops. Some of the distrust was misplaced: the anger over spending $12 million on the pedestrian bridge over the Arkansas River. That was all transportation money, mostly federal, and it could not have been spent on the jail or general county government.

The UALR people said the county was ready to get back to operating a jail that will meet the community’s overpowering needs, which will take millions more in operating funds in addition to the capital needs that Sheriff Doc Holladay (we hope and trust) has solved. Much of the jail work will be done from money that will be borrowed based on massive savings from energy efficiencies in county buildings. But no one has even a vague notion of how the jail can be ramped up to capacity without a new source of money — a tax increase, to put it bluntly. A countywide sales tax of one-eighth or one-quarter percent would do it.

County Judge Buddy Villines said the county wasn’t ready to go to the voters again, yet. The public will have to evince some confidence in the county and demand it, he said. We would guess that the judge and the quorum court will hear the mating call after the party primaries this spring and perhaps after the general election in the fall. Villines faces opponents in his own party and in the fall, so he will be reluctant to face the polls as the man who wants to raise taxes. Quorum court members, most of them, will have the same reluctance.

It is too bad, really, because it simply delays for another year the day when the criminals who now run free heedless of any likely punishment will be behind bars and learning the lesson, at least some of them, that crime doesn’t pay. Now it demonstrably does.