Leader Blues

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

TOP STORY > >Fact sheet issued for proposed jail

Leader senior staff writer

Characterizing the existing Lonoke County Jail as unsafe, overcrowded and inefficient, the Public Policy Center of the University of Arkansas, Division of Agriculture has created a two-page fact sheet to help residents decide whether to vote May 20 for or against a one-year, penny sales tax to pay for a new jail.

“The center tries to produce neutral papers to educate (residents) and let the voters decide,” according to Jeff Welch, Lonoke County’s chief agricultural agent.

Welch said the paper will be made available to the press, County Judge Charlie Troutman, Sheriff Jim Roberson and mayors and aldermen throughout the county.

There seems to be little or no doubt that a new jail would be a good idea. The main point of contention is whether to pay for it with a one-year sales tax, which could be considered regressive and paid for disproportionately, or by raising property taxes, which is considered unfair to property owners.

But after debate earlier this year, and the failure of the property tax increase to win support of the quorum court, the 10 members present voted on March 17 to put the one-year sales tax increase before the voters.

The county has wrestled unsuccessfully for several years with methods to update or expand the new jail or build a new one and with ways to pay for it.

The new jail would have 140 beds and should be sufficient for the county’s needs beyond 2030, according to the Public Policy Center paper, citing projections from the UALR Census Data Center.

It would cost about $5 million to $5.5 million, with the money raised by a dedicated sales tax.

If voters approve the tax, borrowed inmate labor from the state Correction Department will help build the new jail.

“Give me a penny tax for a year and I’ll build you a jail,” Troutman said.

The existing jail was built in 1972 and remodeled in 1992. It was designed for 40 inmates. With additions, its current capacity is 72 beds and frequently holds more than 90 inmates with a high of 98.

The Public Policy Center found the current jail lacking or inadequate in the following areas: No central control format, with doors facing every direction; no sally port, an enclosed area for loading prisoners in and out of the jail; electrical and plumbing are in poor operating condition according to Sheriff Jim Roberson; the lock system is outdated; the jail is unsanitary and unsafe for prisoners and employees; the camera monitoring system is “considered poor;” cells for women, designed for seven, sometimes hold 15, and overcrowded, unsafe conditions have resulted in multi-million dollar lawsuits.

County officials say it would cost $30 a day per prisoner, in addition to transportation costs, wear and tear and time spent transporting prisoners to and from court, making lockup elsewhere expensive and inefficient.

If approved, sales tax collections would begin Oct. 1 and end Sept. 30, 2009.

Residents would pay about 95 percent of the tax on goods and services, with the other approximately $275,000 coming from tourists and visitors.

Assuming that the average Lonoke County household, including those in the cities, makes about 85 percent of its purchases within the county, it is estimated that the amount of additional tax paid in that one year would range from about $65 for households earning between $5,000 and $12,499 to $286 for those earning more than $93,750 a year.

If the tax fails, it will still be Lonoke County’s responsibility to house and protect inmates, but it could cost an additional $107,277 a year on top of the 2007 jail budget of $680,723.

According to the center, “Opponents say a sales tax may not be the best funding option for a new jail because it places a heavier burden on low-income families.

“Opponents say increasing the sales tax rate in Lonoke County may result in both economic and revenue loss to the county.

“Opponents say the increased sales tax rate may cause Lonoke County residents to shop more in surrounding counties.”