Tuesday, December 23, 2014

TOP STORY >> Funding jails vexing issue

Leader staff writer

Jacksonville is the only holdout on a five-city agreement to help defray the cost of operating the county jail, but the mayor is optimistic that things will work out.

The court has determined the payments that each city in the county needs to pay for the county housing city prisoners, but Jacksonville is balking.

While Pulaski County and Jacksonville debate the cost of locking up prisoners, the Lonoke County Quorum Court and the jail are discussing the amount of money the jail should get for its prisoners cleaning up the highway.

Mayor Gary Fletcher has said he will budget $201,000 the quorum court has requested as the city’s portion of the jail’s $25.1 million operating budget, but not sign the five-year agreement. The city paid $195,000 this year.

“But I’m not going to sign something,” Fletcher said, “That is unfair to the city.”

However he believes he can work out an acceptable agreement with incoming County Judge Barry Hyde. “We just need to sit down and discuss it. I want this settled as much as anyone.”

The Jacksonville city council is expected to discuss the issue at their Dec. 29 meeting.

If Jacksonville doesn’t agree to sign the agreement then the Pulaski County Quorum County would charge the city a per day fee of $245 per new prisoner for the first day and $44 for each day after that. It could cost the city $500,000 in 2015.

In Pulaski County, every major city is required to pay a portion of the jails upkeep in lieu of not having to maintain its own long-term jail facility.

Last year, the county court increased the rates the city had to pay while trying to get all cities to sign on to a 10-year agreement that included a 5 percent increase immediately and 3 percent a year thereafter. But the cities pushed back and got a five-year agreement in which, after the first year, the increase will be tied to the consumer price index — not to exceed 3 percent.

Sherwood, Maumelle and North Little Rock signed onto that agreement this summer, and Little Rock agreed to terms last week.

Together, cities in the county paid $2.9 million of the nearly $25 million it took to operate the county jail facility this year. The cost for the cities is going up to $3 million under the agreement.

Sherwood approved of giving the county jail $133,409 a year when the council passed the 2015 general fund budget Monday. Sherwood Mayor Virginia Hillman Young said that figure is locked in as part of the five-year agreement with the county.

Fletcher’s main complaint is that the percentage the cities should pay should be based on population, and, with Jacksonville and Sherwood having about the same population, Fletcher said the fees should be similar. But Sherwood is paying $70,000 less.

County Judge Buddy Villines argues that the rates have never been based on population, but what cities were paying to operate their own jails in 1990.

Part of the reason the quorum court is asking for county cities to increase their share is that the county jail is losing money on the state prisoners it houses, so the cities have to subsidize that loss.

The state currently pays $28 a day for its prisoners, but the Pulaski County Quorum Court has estimated it costs closer to $50 a day. The state legislature next year will look at increasing the state payments from $28 to $35 a day, which could lessen the cities’ burden, and the five-year contract would have to be renegotiated.

Meanwhile, Lonoke County Sheriff John Staley said the Lonoke Quorum Court has agreed to pay the jail $40 a day per inmate it uses. “The money doesn’t go to the inmates, but to the jail to cover the cost of housing the inmates,” Staley said.

The Lonoke facility was housing 146 prisoners as of Tuesday afternoon.

He added that the county has used inmate labor for years to clear rights of way, pick up trash, fill potholes and the jail has never been reimbursed. “So this is a good deal for us,” he said.

Staley said inmates are not required to go out and work for the county.

“It’s volunteer, but most don’t want to sit in their cells the entire day, so they volunteer, and many have good skills that we put to use, like carpentry and concrete work.”

He added that all the work the inmates do, whether for the county or for the jail itself, is on public property.

At the rate of $40 a day, and using about four inmates a day, the jail should pick up between $40,000 and $50,000 next year.