BY MELANIE BUCK –
Plans for a new Polk County jail are temporarily on hold after it was discovered that land donated by the City of Mena, is actually under a ‘covenant restriction.’ In July, Mena City Council voted to donate approximately five acres of land located at the Mena/Polk County Industrial Park for the purpose of building a new Polk County jail. At that time, the transfer of the property was contingent upon both the County securing funding for the project and construction plans being finalized.
However, the Industrial Park Foundation, comprised of members J.V. Brotherton, Carole Martin, and Ed Stevenson, met with Mayor George McKee last Monday and informed him of a ‘covenant restriction’ that does not allow the land to be donated for the purpose of a jail. The ‘covenant,’ put in place in 1995, states that the land can only be used for: industrial manufacturing, warehousing, or distribution.
The City of Mena does own land in the same vicinity, however, is not suitable for the current project of jail construction.
This set-back has not dampened the spirits of Sheriff Godfrey who still plans to seek a one-cent sales tax for the construction of a new jail. The Jail Committee has chosen SouthBuild, a company out of Tennessee, to do site-survey that will inform taxpayers of the total cost and impact the jail will have on the county. The site-survey will remain on hold until land is purchased. SouthBuild built both Sevier and Scott County’s current jail facilities.
Sheriff Godfrey announced his plans to seek a new county jail in June and that it would only benefit the county. According to Godfrey, the current jail is over 30 years old and is no longer meeting state standards, even citing that the last inspection was “not favorable.” Godfrey explained that several jails in Arkansas have already been shut down, “and it won’t be long before they shut down ours.”
Polk County’s jail is designed to hold 26 inmates and, as of May 2 of this year, 35 were in custody. “This creates an unsafe environment for the jail staff and inmates. If an employee or inmate gets injured due to overcrowding, Polk County could be found liable in a civil lawsuit. Jail overcrowding lawsuits are expensive to defend and often result in large judgements.”
The current situation is also preventing the collection of fines, fees, and restitution. “Due to our limited bed space, Polk County currently has over 1,600 active warrants that can’t be served. The fines and fees connected these warrants is $1.9 million. That is money that will go to the County and to pay restitution to victims.”
Godfrey proposed a new 100-bed pod system design that would also include the Sheriff’s Office as well as dispatch, a small courtroom suitable for hearings, infirmary, and a 309 Depository. The 309 Depository would be a possible reimbursable program from the State of trustees that are not from the area and he suspects would improve turn-over.
Based on the current tax base, a 1-cent sales tax would yield approximately $2.2 million of which Godfrey is requesting ¾-of-a-cent be allocated for jail construction and the remaining ¼-of-a-cent budgeted for jail maintenance and operation. Godfrey said the ¾-of-a-cent tax would dissolve once the jail was paid for but said, ideally, the ¼-of-a-cent would remain and be budgeted strictly for ‘jail maintenance and operation.’
The Polk County Sheriff’s Department is now seeking land in a new location, at least 5 to 10 acres in size with utility hook-ups already in place.
Mena Mayor George McKee said, “I realize how bad we need the jail. We’re in a bad situation. It sends the wrong message when we have to release non-violent offenders. While I’m disappointed the project has met a delay, we certainly respect the decision of the Industrial Park Foundation.”
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