Friday, February 25, 2011

TOP STORY >> New jail to open doors in Summer

Leader staff writer

Lonoke County’s $6.2 million, 140-bed jail should be ready for occupants by June 1 and Chief Deputy Dean White says he could have it filled by July 1 – partly with county prisoners and partly with prisoners from other counties the state would pay to house.

Those estimated 40 to 50 paid-for prisoners would offset the shortfall for operating the new facility that has been talked about for months. The county has $900,000 now to open the jail but running it will cost an estimated $1.3 million. At $28 a day, the county could earn an extra $400,000 to $500,000 a year.

But a budget committee made up of members of the Lonoke County Quorum Court that met Thursday night talked about the unknowns of running the new jail that make it unclear if housing prisoners from other counties is the complete solution to the shortfall problem.

What wasn’t discussed openly but only hinted at was that some aren’t sure they want to take prisoners from other jurisdictions. Cabot leaders had talked last year about closing the jail in the police department because of the liability and expense, and paying for space at the new county jail. But Mayor Bill Cypert said during a meeting earlier this month to talk about plans for the year, that the county is waffling about available space, and until he knows what the county plans to do, Cabot prisoners will stay where they are.

And JP Adam Sims said during the Thursday meeting that he isn’t necessarily opposed to renting beds in the new facility, but he doesn’t want it to become a regional jail.

What was discussed is that until the jail opens, no one will know how much it will cost to run. And the quorum court members asked what happens if no other county needs their extra beds or if Lonoke County has to use the beds for its own prisoners and can’t rent beds to help run the jail.

JP Henry Lang said near the end of the two-hour meeting that Lonoke County voters had been very benevolent to approve the one-cent tax that was collected for one year to build the jail and warned that they would not approve another and it was almost immoral to ask without trying to rent the extra beds first.

“There’s no way with God himself campaigning for us they would pass another tax,” Lang said.

From the beginning, the extra 40 beds were intended as money-makers to help pay for holding Lonoke County prisoners but it was clear from the discussion that JP Larry Odom, chairman of the jail committee, and JP Bill Ryker, who has provided the quorum court with construction updates, weren’t certain that the plan would be followed.

Leasing beds was always supposed to help pay for the jail, Ryker said. And Odom said Dallas County rents space in its jail for $700,000 to $800,000 a year, money that goes into the county general fund.

Tim Lemons, the new budget committee chairman, said at the beginning that he wanted it to be informal and that everyone should feel free to simply throw out ideas even if they sounded preposterous.

JP Mark Edwards presented the only idea that was completely shot down though Lemons asked reporters to include it in the list that was compiled on a marker board to show that it had at least been introduced.

Edwards proposed a redistribution of the county-wide one-cent sales tax. Discussion revealed that the cities’ portion of that tax can’t be touched by state law and that of the county’s part, only the money for the roads and bridges can be touched.

Of the JPs attending the meeting, only Edwards of Cabot and Mike Dolan of England, where graveled farm roads are more common than paved roads, didn’t say they would oppose taking money from the road and bridge fund.

“Coming from an all unincorporated district, I don’t like this,” JP Adam Sims said.

J.P Barry Weathers concurred, saying he couldn’t support it.

White said he wanted money to open the jail but not at the expense of county roads.

Edwards withdrew his suggestion at the end of the meeting saying it was a waste of time to keep it on the list.

Sims proposed asking voters for a permanent half-cent sales tax to run the jail and sheriff’s department in exchange for rolling back the county property tax millage from 3.5 to 1.75.

Lemons presented two proposals, one to pass a one-cent tax for one year and run the jail with the proceeds for 12 years, and one to pass a half-cent tax for one year to be followed by a sixteenth-cent tax that would not sunset.

Jeff Sikes, the county attorney, told Sims that the problem with his proposal was that one quorum court can’t tell the next one what to do. This court can’t keep the next one from raising the millage back to 3.5 or even to 5 which is the highest the quorum court can set.

The problem with Lemon’s proposal for a sixteenth-cent tax was that an eighth-cent tax is the lowest possible, Sikes said.

Sims said when presenting his proposal for a sales-tax and millage rollback that renters don’t pay property tax but they are often the people who make the meth and fill the county jail.

Weathers suggested asking voters for a one-cent sales tax that would take the place of the county’s property-tax millage.

“A sales tax is the fairest tax out there because everybody pays,” Lemons said.

Odom said that if county voters passed another one-cent tax, the county could for $2.5 million build space for an additional 128 prisoners and the new jail could give money back to the general fund.

But Odom’s proposal was for a permanent eighth-cent sales tax.

Sims then threw out a proposal that he said was not his idea. The county could vote itself wet and get tax revenue from liquor sales.

J.P. Joe Farrer was the first to speak for that proposal saying he was Catholic and not opposed to alcohol.

“There’s one judge and it ain’t me and you,” Farrer said.

White said in response to questions from the group that patrolling in a wet county likely would cost no more than in a dry one.

All agreed that since Lonoke County is between Pulaski and Prairie, both wet counties, there is alcohol in Lonoke already.

Odom also asked that increasing the county millage to 5 be added to the list of possibilities.

Of the ideas to raise money to operate the jail that filled the board by the end of the meeting, the only ones possible without a vote of the people are increasing the property-tax millage and renting beds in the jail.

The committee agreed to meet again at 6:30 p.m., Thursday March 10. Odom asked the members to take the suggestions to a dozen of their constituents and report back to the committee.

Edwards asked the members to refrain from talking to the press until they have put together a plan.