Friday, July 25, 2014

TOP STORY >> Mayors ask better deal on jail costs

Leader senior staff writer

Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher and Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola are the two holdouts among five cities pondering a new, five-year, interlocal agreement to help support the Pulaski County Detention Center.

Fletcher on Friday called for Pulaski County Sheriff Doc Holladay to provide the leadership to redraw a fairer interlocal agreement since, he said, apparently County Judge Buddy Villines isn’t going to.

Villines has proposed a five-year agreement with a 5 percent increase in the amount assessed each city the first year, and annual increases tied to the consumer price index.

Jail and prison overcrowding and funding are important issues with lots of moving parts, particularly in Central Arkansas.

Pulaski County is required by law to house prisoners from municipalities within its borders, and Jacksonville, Little Rock, North Little Rock, Sherwood and Maumelle agreed in 2004 to support the $26 million a year jail to the collective tune of about $3 million a year. The state and federal government pay about $2 million a year for the inmates they have in the county lockup.

Tuesday night, the Pulaski County Quorum Court approved unanimously a new per diem fee schedule that will kick in for any of the five that don’t ratify a new agreement. The per diem is a more expensive option, with the cities charged $248 for the first day one of their prisoners is booked into the jail and $45 a day after that. Stodola objects to the big first-day fee, calling it “egregious.”

Fletcher objects to Jacksonville’s share in the proposed agreement, which would be $68,000 more a year than Sherwood pays, and Sherwood has a bigger population.

Since the 2004 interlocal agreement, Jacksonville’s population has declined by about 780 people, while Sherwood’s has grown by more than 10,000, Fletcher said.

Sherwood had about 50 percent more inmates in the county jail last year than Jacksonville did, according to numbers Fletcher provided.

“I understand the mayor’s point,” Villines said, “but if they don’t participate, they’ll come under the per-diem plan.”

That could increase Jacksonville’s financial liability from $201,000 a year, under the proposed interlocal agreement, to nearly $500,000.

“The problem he has is with the other cities, not with the county,” the judge said. “I can’t tell the other cities to pay more so he can pay less.”

Fletcher addressed the justices of the peace at the Tuesday night meeting, saying there were all kinds of disparities.

“I’ll pay my fair share, but the key word is fair,” Fletcher said.

He said he won’t bring the interlocal agreement to the Jacksonville City Council until he has a proposal he can support.

He said the biggest problem is the number of state inmates taking up beds in the county jail. And the state pays the county only $24 a day per inmate, while the cost of housing an inmate is $44.

Fletcher said he hopes the General Assembly will agree to pay its fair share when it convenes in January, but Villines said that jail and prison overcrowding is perceived elsewhere as a central Arkansas problem.

Legislators from other areas of the state are unlikely to be eager to pay more, he said.

In the three-day special session this summer, the General Assembly did appropriate about $6.2 million to open another 600 prison beds around the state. Pulaski County’s work-release center, also known as the Wrightsville Satellite Center, just reopened and will hold 250 inmates.

Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office Spokesman Lt. Carl Minden said the county would benefit by half that number.

The state’s inmates aren’t being transferred directly from the Pulaski County jail, but rather the state is moving inmates near their release dates from other prisons to that unit, opening up beds in those prisons.

The county has leased that facility to the Correction Department for $1 a year, according to Minden.

The Pulaski County Detention Center, which twice this year stopped taking any but the most violent inmates, is open now and was down to a count of 1,157 Friday morning, he said. Its capacity, which it sometimes exceeds, is 1,210.