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Bailing out the jail 

Can it be done without new taxes?

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The eternal problem of government, it's said, is that everybody wants services and nobody wants to pay for them. Nowhere does that hold more true than in the case of the Pulaski County Jail. Everywhere, one hears complaints about crime in Pulaski County and the need to keep more of the criminals locked up. Nowhere does one hear that it's time to increase taxes to accomplish that end.

And that's not true just of taxpayers. County officials are holding their tongues too, cognizant that county voters have rejected three tax increases for the jail, the most recent last year. Even the official most closely involved with the jail's operation, and presumably most knowledgeable about the need for increased capacity, Sheriff Doc Holladay, isn't suggesting a tax increase. Instead, Holladay has appealed for private donations to help pay for repairs to an old jail building, repairs that would be a very early step toward incarceration of more prisoners.

“I'm not ready to get out there and say it's time for a tax,” Holladay said. “We have to demonstrate to the public that our house is in order before we ask the people to do something that's been defeated three times already.” County government has experienced financial difficulties for several years. A former county comptroller went to prison recently for his part in those difficulties.

County Judge Buddy Villines also is unready to propose a tax increase for the jail, although he says that to get the jail where it needs to be for the long run, either a tax increase or increased contributions from the cities that use the jail will be needed. And the cities have shown no inclination to contribute more.

Allen Kerr, a Quorum Court member from West Little Rock, is even less enthusiastic about taxes. He said that if an increase was proposed in the 2008 elections, he'd actively oppose it. To put a tax increase for the jail on the ballot would be a waste of money, Kerr said. “I don't want to spend $100,000 to get the people to tell us ‘no' again.” Kerr, a Republican, also says that most of the jail's needs can be met without a tax increase, by effecting savings in the present county budget. He's more optimistic about that than Holladay and Villines, both Democrats.

In 2005, the jail had beds for 1,130 inmates. But the county ran into some of those financial difficulties, and budget cuts were required. The sheriff's office lost $4.1 million from its budget, Holladay said. “When you don't have the staff, when you don't have the food and medical services, then you have to close beds.” The jail now has 880 beds. That leaky roof Holladay wants donations to repair is on a building that once housed 160 inmates but became unusable. The inmates were moved to a work center. The repairs would get the building back in shape so that it could once again be used, the inmates moved back from the work center, but wouldn't allow the jail to add beds, Holladay said. That won't be possible until the jail gets more money from somewhere to hire the staff that would be needed, he said.

To get the jail back to 1,130 beds would require an additional $2.5 million a year, Holladay said. That would have to come either from finding savings elsewhere in the budget for all of county government, or from a new revenue source specifically for the jail. He's doubtful that $2.5 million a year can be carved out of the present county budget.

Although the jail is now budgeted and staffed for 880 inmates, it's actually averaging 950 inmates a day, Holladay said. That's done by operating with 21 fewer employees than are needed, and by putting inmates on the floor on mattresses.

“On Oct. 8, we had 1,125 inmates,” Holladay said. “Every mattress, every cot was filled with a body. We're committed to keeping all the violent offenders locked up, and all the nonviolent offenders that we can. I'm hopeful we can make it to the end of the year with the funds that were appropriated for us.”

To save money in a crunch, the jail cuts back on the medical budget for inmates, Holladay said — “no exploratory work.” When the jail population goes over 1,000, the average cost of a meal is cut from $1.03 to 98 cents.

How much jail does Pulaski County need? Holladay said the county's population, the crime rate, and the arrest rate must be considered, along with the job applicant pool — “You don't want to lower your standards.”

A jail that could hold 1,700 to 2,000 inmates would be sufficient, Holladay said. “You could fill up a 5,000-bed facility if you wanted to, but that's not a good idea. You should identify those who don't need to be locked up, and find the ones who belong in another agency.”

Despite the skepticism of Holladay and Villines, Kerr said he's committed to finding operational money for the jail in the county's existing budget structure. That means finding $2.5 million a year, to get the jail back to the 1,130 beds it had in 2005.

“Reports from the treasurer's office are that tax collection levels are up this year,” Kerr said. “Once we're sure of the numbers, we can start making plans to increase the number of jail beds …”

Kerr won't be in the Quorum Court to see long-range jail plans come to fruition, if he has his way next year. He's running for the state House of Representatives.

Important as the jail is, Holladay and Villines wish they didn't have to spend so much of their time and resources on it. “I have to provide law enforcement for people in 580 square miles of unincorporated area,” Holladay said.

“Public safety is always your number-one priority,” Villines said. “But you have to have quality of life too.”

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