BY MELANIE BUCK –
At the monthly Polk County Quorum Court meeting on Tuesday, August 25, Justices of the Peace heard from Sterling Penix, who is over jail standards in the state of Arkansas. Penix explained to the court that the state is working with Polk County to identify needs within the current jail and a way to move forward that is best for the county.
Penix explained that the state sets the standards that were first written in the 1970’s and 1980’s but they were revised late in 2014 and published in January of this year, creating more stringent standards than before. This is one reason Polk County is out of compliance in so many areas, the rules have simply changed and it’s becoming increasingly difficult for rural counties to keep up.
Penix stated that to keep the current facility open, a major overhaul would have to be completed, however, it will be up to the Quorum Court as to whether they feel that an overhaul is a cost effective way to correct the problem. “I would encourage folks to look at the cost effectiveness of that approach. I think you would possibly find that rehabbing the building may not be a good strategy but what we’re looking for is compliance. If Polk County decides that rehabbing the building is their best option and that it’s compliant, we’re good,” said Penix.
Not only that, the County is unsure where the money would come from to pay for a remodel. Sheriff Mike Godfrey explained that the budget for the jail is already stretched thin so there are no funds available to bring the jail into compliance status. The other options would be to either build a new jail, which would require a sales tax, or to not have one at all.
Sheriff Godfrey referenced an article that explains what two other counties in the state have gone through since having their facilities shut down for many of the same non-compliance issues that Polk County is having. In Madison County, $200,000 was budgeted to house prisoners in neighboring Washington County, after their jail was voluntarily closed at the end of 2014 for being out of compliance. However, $190,000 of that budget has already been used, and the year is far from over. Those numbers come from housing an average of 29 inmates, the same average of Polk County’s inmate population. The Helena-West Helena jail in Phillips County was shut down by state officials in April of 2013 and it now costs them about $750,000 to house inmates elsewhere. Both of those counties had proposed sales tax increases which were voted against two to three different times in each county. A half-cent sales tax has been proposed in Phillips County since the closure of their facility but was again, voted down. Sources estimate it would cost Polk County approximately $500,000 per year to house inmates elsewhere.
This leads to more questions, such as, if there is no money to fix the current jail, how will there be money to pay someone else to house the inmates? A review committee was created to assist Penix in searching for the best way to fix the issues involved. The committee is made up of two citizens of Polk County and two from Montgomery County. Sheriff Godfrey said there may be some grant funding available for repairs and such through a USDA grant, and that he will apply for it and anything else that could help but that there isn’t really any grant funding available for major projects, like what would be required here, or new builds.
Penix, along with Sheriff Godfrey, County Judge Brandon Ellison, and the review committee will meet around October or November to discuss the non-compliant issues and develop a plan to move forward, whether that be trying to secure funds for a rehab project or shutting the facility down to a holding facility, 24-hour facility, or a complete shutdown. Although there was no date set for a shutdown of the current facility, Penix said that it is always an option but they hope to avoid that.
Penix also expressed the state’s willingness to help Polk County, “The review committee will be looking and working with Polk County in an effort to identify a pathway towards compliance. If Polk County believes that an overhaul and a rehab of the building is the best fit, if that fit ties into standards then everything is ok. Our committee and our office want to work with your County Judge, with your County Sheriff, and local officials and define a good pathway forward that will fit for both standards and Polk County.”
Justice of the Peace Terry Terrell still stands by his opinion that this is more of a state problem than a county problem, citing an article that shows the state of Arkansas paying $57 per day to Tennessee to house Arkansas Department of Corrections inmates, while they only pay $30 per day to counties within Arkansas to house the same inmates. Terrell believes that if the state would house their own inmates, county jails across the state would not be in such dire straits and disrepair and points out that the drastic difference in payment is not fair.
In other news at the meeting, Judge Ellison said the roof of the Polk County Office Complex has been fixed via a $30,000 grant and $2,000 from the County general fund for a total project cost of $32,000. Ceiling tiles in the building are also set to be replaced and Judge Ellison asked for an additional $600 from the Court to complete the project.
The next Quorum Court meeting is set for Tuesday, September 22, at 6 p.m. in the Polk County Office Complex, 606 Pine Street in Mena.