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A week after the Pulaski County Quorum Court voted 10-5 to put a quarter-cent jail tax on a September special election ballot, mayors are rallying business leaders for support, grassroots groups are gearing up to educate neighbors and county leaders are readying to talk to anyone who will listen.
The pitch is a lot like one that county voters have heard before, one that didn’t work in 1997 or 2002 when similar tax proposals failed at the polls.
On the ballot: A .25-cent countywide sales tax that would piggyback on an existing 1-cent countywide tax. The current penny is distributed to cities and the county based on population, but the proposed quarter cent would go solely to the jail.
If the proposal passes, the county would continue to pay from its general fund what it is paying this year for 880 beds — $16.8 million. The new tax would add another $18.3 million to the jail budget in 2007 and would allow the lockup to operate at least 1,618 beds.
Tax opponents on the Quorum Court predict history will repeat and the proposal will get less than 40 percent of the vote. But other county and city leaders hope this third tax attempt will be the charm.
A few ugly facts favor tax proponents. The regional lockup hasn’t had so few beds since 1995, the year after it opened; the jail has been closed to all but the most violent criminals nearly every day since the Quorum Court slashed its budget and emptied 245 beds nine months ago; violent crime and a mounting Little Rock murder rate dominate the nightly news.
County Judge Buddy Villines has said he doesn’t want a tax campaign based on fear, but critics of the tax say that’s just what is happening.
“They’re going to try to scare people to death,” said Little Rock activist Jim Lynch, who was the only member of a countywide public safety task force to abstain from the group’s otherwise unanimous vote to support the tax (he favored a smaller increase). “They’re playing the murder/jail bed connection. There’s not a connection. People who commit murder in the county go directly to jail.”
Though violent criminals are not turned away from the jail, police argue that catching and releasing non-violent offenders heightens the chance for violence in the future. They also say that repeatedly chasing down the same bad guys who face no threat of jail time is demoralizing for officers and a waste of police resources.
“No one wants to pay a new tax, but we’re faced with an issue here,” said North Little Rock Police Chief Danny Bradley. “[The jail situation] has really stymied the effectiveness of the criminal justice system here in the county.”
At least 15 other counties in the state have passed taxes specifically for jail funding since 1997. All but one collect at least a quarter cent each.
Lynch supports a smaller tax proposal — an eighth of a cent for jail operations on a permanent basis and an eighth of a cent that would sunset after additional beds were built.
But the Quorum Court voted 9 to 6 against that idea last week. Several task force members and county leaders said the smaller tax wouldn’t do enough.
“When that proposal came up to the task force, we thought, ‘Wow, this might be a really good way to do it,’” Villines said. “But when you start putting in the numbers, in three years, you’re basically back to where you started.”
Villines pledges that a quarter-cent tax would keep the county “out of the voters’ hair” for at least 15 years.
But Lynch questions some components of the county’s projections, and he argues that with successful crime prevention, intervention and treatment programs, the county could survive with closer to 1,350 beds and a lower tax.
How many beds does the county really need? More than the current 880, everyone says. Most agree that the constant overcrowding with the previous 1,125-bed capacity didn’t work either.
“Frankly, I think we need more like 2,000,” Little Rock Police Chief Stuart Thomas said. Prosecutor Larry Jegley concurs.
Whatever the magic jail bed number, tax proponents will need to convince voters that it’s the right one — and worth their cash.
County leaders also know they’ll have to answer a steady flow of questions that have percolated for years.
Why not privatize? Why not build an inexpensive tent city for minimum-security prisoners? Can the county require prisoners to pay for jail stays? Why can’t the state help the county out of this bind?
Members of the countywide task force asked these questions and many others in the course of five months before voting to support the tax proposal.
Voters may also ask city leaders what will happen to about $2.1 million in annual jail funding that would return to municipal coffers if the tax passes. North Little Rock Mayor Patrick Hays has pledged to recommend investment in prevention, intervention and treatment with his city’s share. Other mayors have suggested more funding in the realm of public safety, but nothing is firm without approval from city boards.
Voters may have other questions, bigger ones with fewer easy answers.
Are more jail beds the best cure for rising crime rates? Has the county done everything it can to save on jail spending? Will it use new tax money wisely in the future?
Lynch said an organized anti-tax effort is in the works. (And some of it plays into partisan politics. The tax increase is likely to be an issue in some contested races for Quorum Court, with Republican candidates in opposition to the tax increase, as several were in last week’s vote.)
But tax proponents have high hopes. They’re trying to answer to skeptics and they’re making big promises.
For Detention Chief Randy Morgan and other county leaders, the hard work at hand is proving to the public that these promises will hold true.
“We want the public to come in, take a look, see where your money’s going,” Morgan said of the Roosevelt Road lockup. “You make the decision. Is this a country club? Are we wasting your money? Come and look.”
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