Saturday, September 16, 2006

TOP STORY>>Tax defeat may raise crime rate

IN SHORT: County reduces jail beds and cities may have to pay more to send prisoners there.

Leader staff writer

The third time did not charm enough Pulaski County voters to push through a jail tax measure to fund additional beds and the operational costs, and now officials appear stymied as to how to proceed.

One thing is certain: This week’s loss means the county jail’s 880 beds, already vastly down, will be cut to 800.

Pulaski County officials are concerned that the loss of a proposed quarter-cent sales tax at the polls this week will mean more overcrowded jails, more crime and overburdened municipalities that cannot pay more to house prisoners until there’s room for them in the state prison system.

“It looks like it took a good whuppin’,” Sherwood Mayor Bill Harmon said of the jail tax vote. “I was surprised.”
What can the county do to open more jail beds next year or even keep the number it currently has? “I have no earthly idea,” Harmon said.

The one-quarter percent sales/use tax increase failed, 16,112 to 12,088.

According to John Rehrauer, spokesman for Pulaski County Sheriff’s Department, this was the third attempt to muster enough support to provide adequate jail space for all detainees from municipalities within the county.

“I wouldn’t say we were shocked, more like disappointed,” Rehrauer said. “We knew it was going to be a close vote.”
Rehrauer says more voters supported this proposal than the past two initiatives, but the support was not there to pass.

“We’re dedicated to opening up more beds if funding does arise, but basically, our hands are tied, right now,” he said.

“Sheriff (Randy) Johnson made it clear already we’re not going to hang our heads, and he will be preparing a budget for 800 beds,” Rehrauer added.

If the tax measure had passed, jail officials planned to get the inmate population cap brought back up to a 1,125-cap. But now, they must contend with overcrowding woes and a decrease of 80 beds by January.Last year, Pulaski County cities ponied up an extra $1 million to raise from 800 to 880 the number of inmates that could be housed in the Pulaski County Detention Center.

If the jail tax measure had passed, cities, which entered into inter-local agreements with Pulaski County, would no longer be charged thousands of dollars each year to house their detainees in the county jail. Since the jail tax measure was defeated, this fee remains in full force and no extra funding for other projects will become available from this source.

County Judge Floyd “Buddy” Villines, in the nation’s capital on business Thursday, said he had not asked the cities yet to help out again in addition to the money they have by traditional agreement paid to help support the jail.

Harmon and Jacksonville Mayor Tommy Swaim both say they are concerned that the jail will continue to be closed most of the time to all but violent criminals next year, but say city residents already provide about 80 percent or more of the amount of money the county spends to support the jail.

Swaim explained that included county sales taxes paid by city residents as well as the county’s share of real estate and personal property taxes.

“There’s a limit to what we can do, too,” Harmon said.

Of the 360,000 people in the county, 300,000 live in the towns, Swaim said.

Villines said he didn’t dispute that municipal residents account for about $16 million a year, but that the jail was not the only service the county provides those municipalities. For instance, the county helps pay for some roads and bridges within city limits, he noted.

Doc Holladay, the Democratic nominee for Pulaski County Sheriff, said he would investigate other options, like housing prisoners in tents. Housing them is not the immediate problem, according to Villines. It’s paying salaries for the jailers.
“The work-release center is our ‘tent’,” said Villines, noting that the county had to close it because it didn’t have money to pay jailers.

Rehrauer explained that jail officials have known deputies could be dealing with more crime in the future without jail time being a viable deterrent.

“It was several years ago that Randy Morgan (who oversees the county jail) said crime is going up,” Rehrauer told The Leader.
Sherwood and Jacksonville law-enforcement agencies, which feed their detainees into the county jail, will also be affected, Sherwood Police Chief Kel Nicholson predicts there will be more car break-ins, thefts and acts of vandalism since the jail sales tax did not pass.

“It’ll be business as usual…we will be citing people out we can’t get into the jail,” Nicholson told The Leader. “And I imagine the repeat offender rate will keep going up.”

Had the jail tax passed, Nicholson said, cities would have saved money by not having to pay the county for housing city prisoners under an inter-local agreement.

“We were going to add on possibly six patrol officers, but we’re only going to get three now,” Nicholson said.
According to Nichol-son, Sherwood operates a jail facility, which allows them to keep people up to 14 days. “But it can only hold seven people at a time,” he says.

Both Jacksonville Police Chief Robert Baker and Nicholson will carry on as usual. Reacting to the special election’s outcome, however, Baker expressed disappointment.

“Well, it was regrettable it didn’t pass but I respect the voters’ decision,” Baker said.

The Jacksonville Police Depart-ment will continue to notify Pulaski County Jail officials about any violent felons arrested in the city. For non-violent offenders, other arrangements will apparently be made for their respective releases.

In the past, Jacksonville operated an intermediate jail and would house detainees up to 14 days but Baker previously explained the JPD is currently a booking facility. Individuals arrested in Jackson-ville should stay there only a few hours, according to Baker.

Jacksonville city coffers will not see any extra cash flow. Baker previously said that an annual fee of $125,000 is being paid to the county to house detainees.