Friday, June 23, 2006

TOP STORY >> Group eyes sales tax to pay for jail

Leader staff writer

IN SHORT: Pulaski County Public Safety Task Force postpones recommendation to quorum court until after Monday’s meeting.

Instead of finalizing proposals for financing and operating the county’s overcrowded detention center, the Pulaski County Public Safety Task Force decided Thursday night to schedule a split-group meeting at 6:30 p.m. Monday to narrow its focus on how to finance the jail, if and when to hold a special election and how much to expand the center’s bed count.

The pressing issue for the task force to determine at the Monday meeting is whether to propose a one-quarter or one-eighth of a cent sales-tax increase to the quorum court. If a tax is recommended, the quorum court will decide whether or not to call for a special election in August or September or place it on the general election ballot in November. The meeting will be held in the Pulaski County Administration Building’s Quorum Court Room, 201 S. Broadway in Little Rock.

County Judge Buddy Villines emphasized that the detention center is in dire need of emergency funding. “If we go through Septem-ber without any relief, we’ll be forced to cut another 80 beds from the 880 we’re working with now,” he said.

Villines also stressed the importance of holding a special election as soon as possible in order to avoid muddling the issue with the general elections in November.

“The later we push it, the closer we come to the general election. We don’t want voters confused.

“This is an entirely separate issue from the general election. Voters deserve a special election. We need time to get information to them,” the judge said.

Villines acknowledged that the original capacity when the detention center opened in 1994 wasn’t enough to sustain projected inmate increases. “By the time we opened 800, we needed 1,300 to 1,400 beds,” he said. “We’ve been 10 years on the slide and have hit the wall.”

At previous meetings, the task force discussed consolidating patrol divisions of the sheriff’s office with Little Rock and North Little Rock police departments.

Shirley Simpson, president of County Jail Reform Now, previously defined what the group believes to be the most important problems facing task force members regarding the county lockup.

In a letter dated April 15 to Villines, Simpson said that the jail was built without consideration for “fixed or dedicated funding,” and existing communication problems between city and county officials concerning the jail also have hindered progress. Not making public safety a priority, assigning blame, overlooking planned strategies, as well as financial management and jail maintenance are among the group’s major concerns.

Among the group’s recommendations are to reopen the warehouse work center, utilize private firms to house medium- and low-risk in-mates, generate revenue by assessments such as those added to county services, create a plea-bargain arrangement to “move prisoners through the system” faster and lobby the state to increase county funding for housing inmates until they are transferred to prison.

Regarding the strong possibility of a tax proposal, Simpson said that other means should be explored before raising taxes, considering previous rejection by voters in a November 1997 special election, and the 2002 general election. Should a tax increase prevail, revenue should not be placed within general operating funds and earmarked strictly as a jail fund, a stipulation agreed upon by the 22 present among the 24-member panel. Jacksonville Mayor Tommy Swaim and Wrightsville Mayor Lorraine Smith were absent.

“If taxpayers are to trust the quorum court with an additional tax, it must be handled properly and (used) for what was promised them when they voted for it,” Simpson said.

“The increase should not be a replacement of current funds, rather, an enhancement of the jail account for the sole purpose of the construction, repair, maintenance and operation of the Pulaski County Regional Jail system.”

Simpson also said that an independent audit of jail funds should be conducted annually “to enhance and rebuild the public trust that has so greatly diminished over the past two years.”

Tom Brooks, president and CEO of Cinergi Contractors in Sherwood, said he wants law enforcement experts to decide whether or not to reopen the workforce center.

“Let the elected law enforcement officials micromanage their offices,” Brooks said.

Brooks agreed, however, with Simpson on the safekeeping of any tax revenue. “That tax has to be earmarked and not touched,” he said. “It won’t pass without a guarantee that it’ll be used specifically the way we need it to be.”

Task force member Rev. Benny Johnson, founder and president of Stop the Violence, surmised the situation bluntly. “We don’t have a lot of time,” he said. “We’ve got to find a way to keep these habitual offenders off the streets.”

Jim Lynch, president of Coalition of Little Rock Neighborhoods, said, “The overall question is, how much do we want to spend?” Then he explained four phases of the task force’s proposal.

“Restoring the work release center, which was shut down in October 2005, will help,” he said. “With an additional $2.5 million, we could open it tomorrow with 250 beds. We could build 192 new barracks with the cost to build and operate it, and repairing the old jail, a cellblock in disrepair.

“With $1.5 or $1.6 million, we could get 160 hardcore cellblocks tomorrow and would cost $2.5 million annually to operate. These three lines don’t give me heartburn at all. The last line gives me heartburn. We’re proposing spending $17 million to build a new cellblock, at $6 million a year to run. The current jail costs $18.9 million, and with work release beds, another $1 million. We’ve got an operating budget of $19 million. A proposal to increase the operating budget to $32.2 million seems like the most expensive alternative to solve a very serious problem. Taxpayers have a bottom to their wallets, too.”

Task force member and Twin City Bank president Bob Birch said that informing the public is crucial and that he or the task force wasn’t prepared to make quorum court recommendations based on the amount of new information presented at the meeting.

He also didn’t want to rush into a special election before all the facts and figures could be thoroughly examined by fellow members.

“Much of the public has no clue as to the severity of this problem,” he said. “I’m opposed to an August or September election. There’s a great deal of ignorance on this. We’ve spent a lot of time asking people what they know about this.”