BY MELANIE BUCK –
Polk County Quorum Court unanimously passed three ordinances on Tuesday, February 24, that create a special election for the levy of a county-wide tax and the issuance of $10.9 million in bonds for the cost of a new county jail.
Presentations were given by Ryan Bowman, of Friday Law Firm in Little Rock, and Jason Holsclaw, of Stephens (a financial service company) in Little Rock, to assist the Court in any questions they may have about the proposed ordinances.
As Bowman explained, the first of the ordinances (Ordinance #2015-3) levies a ¼ cent Sales and Use Tax on a permanent basis for the purpose of “an additional source of revenue to be used for one or more of the following: (a) to acquire, construct, improve, expand, equip, furnish, operate and maintain new or existing jail and law enforcement facilities, including any necessary land acquisition and utility, road and parking improvements related thereto or in support thereof and (b) to pay and secure the repayment of bonds approved by the voters and issued by the County from time to time to finance jail and law enforcement facilities and facilities related thereto or in support thereof (“Jail and Law Enforcement Bonds”).
The second Ordinance, #2015-4, calls for a special election on the question of levying the county-wide ¼ cent Sales and Use Tax for jail and law enforcement facilities.
The third, and final, ordinance on the table for the evening was Ordinance #2015-5. This ordinance calls for “a special election on the question of issuing bonds under Amendment No. 62 to the Constitution of the State of Arkansas for the purpose of financing all or a portion of the cost of new jail and law enforcement facilities; levying a new ¾ cent Sales and Use Tax for the purpose of retiring such bonds.” The ¾ cent tax would be used for “a new jail, sheriff’s office, arraignment room, 911 dispatch center, and administrative offices related to law enforcement and any necessary land acquisition and utility, road and parking improvements related thereto and in support thereof.” The bonds would not exceed the voter-authorized amount of $10.9 million.
Holsclaw also explained the process by which the figure of $10.9 million was reached:
- $9.5 million for construction
- A 10% Debt Service Reserve Fund – Required in case county is unable to pay, considered a security standard for all projects of this stature.
- Cost of issuance amount – includes miscellaneous fees and expenditures.
- Bonds being sold in increments of 5,000
- An extra 1% added for contingencies
Holsclaw added that interest rates do fluctuate and could cause some of those figures to decrease. The ¾ cent tax is considered a ‘sunset tax’ meaning it would expire when the debt is paid. Holsclaw explained that if the ¾ cent tax passes, projections based on current figures show that the authorized amount of $10.9 million in bonds needed, would be paid off in approximately seven years.
Among discussion of the ordinances, Justices of the Peace had few questions, however, one focused on the availability of land. Sheriff Godfrey responded, “We have options of land, we’ve just not made any offers yet. There is a lot of commercial property in the county. We have very viable options.” Godfrey said they have had two different donations of land that “just didn’t pan out” but they have allotted $400,000 into the budget for the purchase of land and any needed improvements. He also said the jail will have to be within Mena’s city limits or close enough to annex because of the need of water and sewer services.
All three ordinances passed unopposed and both the ¼ cent tax and the ¾ cent tax measures will appear independently on the ballot in the approved special election to be held on Tuesday, May 12, 2015. If the taxes pass, they would take effect by October 1, 2015.
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.”
Godfrey describes the new jail as “not better … just large enough to house the inmate population.” 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 turnover.
“A new jail will allow our department to separate prisoners based on the seriousness of offense and past criminal activities. Currently, felony inmates and misdemeanor inmates are often housed together. This creates a real safety issue that could ultimately result in inmate lawsuits against the county.”
Godfrey said that criminals in the county are also keenly aware of the overcrowding issue and that they know all too well that unless they have committed a violent offense, they won’t be held in our jail for very long. “Because of this, a large number of them fail to pay their fines/restitution, refuse to do their community service, and fail to appear in court.”
Godfrey said it is a daily juggling process to manage the overcrowding. And with a 6% inflation rate among construction costs and materials he said, “The longer we wait, the more it will cost to build a new jail.” If the proposal passes, Godfrey explained, “Then we will build it throughout the year so we can stop the overcrowding and start 2016 with a new jail.”