Tuesday, March 01, 2011

TOP STORY >> Seeking Lonoke jail funds

Leader staff writer

Some people call a problem so big that no one wants to talk about an elephant in the middle of the room, but Larry Odom, a longtime member of the Lonoke County Quorum Court and chairman of the jail committee that has worked for many years on a solution to overcrowding, talks about alligators threatening the new jail.

The county has two alligators, Odom says: The jail problem will be solved when the new $6.2 million, 140-bed facility opens this summer, and the sheriff’s department, which is becoming under-funded. Renting out jail beds would solve both problems.

Odom met with the Cabot City Council’s fire and police committee Monday night and gave an overview about the new jail, why it was needed, how it was paid for and an update on proposals for raising money to run it.

Against the wishes of JP Mark Edwards — who asked quorum court members during a meeting last week to refrain from talking to the press until they had a solid plan for paying to run the new jail — Odom also spoke later with The Leader about funding the jail.

Odom said the county gained 40 beds by choosing an architect for the jail who would bid the construction instead of going with the Memphis firm that would have used its own suppliers and contractors.

The rhetoric of recent months suggests that the jail committee gave no thought to where the money would come from to run it, he said, adding that nothing could be further from the truth. The extra 40 beds were always supposed to be used to produce revenue to run the jail.

That would take care of the first alligator, he said. But the second one is a bigger problem.

“This year to balance the budget, we had to cut $20,000 out of the sheriff’s gas money. There will be no new cars and his special accounts had to be used,” Odom told The Leader.

When quorum court members met last week as a finance committee, Odom suggested asking voters for a permanent eighth-cent sales tax to run the sheriff’s department, a proposal that he reiterated during the interview this week.

Considering that the one-cent tax to build the jail produced about $6 million, a one-eighth cent tax should bring in about $750,000.

“It’s going to take the eighth-cent sales tax to rope this alligator up,” he said.

The quorum court 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.

JP Adam Sims’ proposal was to ask 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.

JP Tim 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 the committee that state law won’t allow a quorum court to set law for the next one. This court can’t say the next one has to keep the millage at 1.75, he said.

Sikes also told the court that the lowest tax allowed is an eighth cent.

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

Odom said that if county voters approved a one-cent tax for one year as Lemons proposed, the county should take $2.5 million and build 128 more beds to rent and put money back in the general fund.

The final proposal to raise money for the county jail and sheriff’s department was to vote the county wet.

The sale of alcohol except in private clubs has been banned in Lonoke County since Dec. 14, 1937, when the issue was decided by the majority of 1,160 voters who turned out for a special election. Of that number, 328 voted to continue selling alcohol, and 832 voted to ban it.

To even get the question on a ballot would take a petition with the verified signatures of 38 percent of the county’s registered voters, which would be about 14,000 signatures.