story by Ryan Saylor
It was 11 months ago that Crawford County Sheriff Ron Brown made the pitch for an expanded county jail at its current Main Street location in Van Buren, an expansion that had a price tag of $24 million.
As time has passed from his initial meeting with the Quorum Court, Brown's idea has morphed into a new jail facility to be built away from the heart of town and at a cost of $20 million. The only catch? Brown and County Judge John Hall will have to sell county residents on a half-cent sales tax likely to be voted on May 20 — a quarter-cent to build the new facility and a quarter-cent for operations and public safety. The construction portion would sunset after 20 years, while the operations would be a permanent sales tax, Hall said.
If passed, the half-cent bump in the sales tax would make the county's two largest cities, Alma and Van Buren, some of the most heavily taxed communities (in terms of sales tax) in the nation, with a sales tax rate of 10% each.
With residents already facing high sales taxes to pay for projects either underway or planned for the future, Hall knows pitching an additional half-cent for the jail is going to be a tough sell, especially in a county that has rejected similar proposals to fund jail expansions three times before.
"Of course, I always have concerns that they will reject it," he said. "It's been rejected three times. You have to be aware that this is not a popular item. No one likes taxes. But it's up to us to inform the public about why we need this and how badly we need this so they will understand the need."
Hall, who has spent the better part of the last year discussing the jail with the Quorum Court and Brown, said the county was at a point where they either spend money on housing inmates in the county or spend about $200,000 each year transporting inmates to and from Crawford County for court hearings from facilities in other counties across Arkansas.
"We have to change something to overcome this overcrowding and the problem with our existing jail," he said.
The new jail will have capacity for hundreds of inmates and could easily be expanded due to the facility being built with modular jail cells, which allow for easy construction and installation and minimal staffing once operational due to a design that places guards in position to observe more inmates from a perch overlooking the jail's interior.
"We call it a wheel system," Hall said, “But it's a modular thing. It's the latest design in supervision. In the new jails, you can supervise them (the inmates) with a lot less people. They're in the sight of someone all the time. Technology is making it easier and easier to supervise and operate these things. It's still costly, still expensive. But in old times, it would take twice as many people (to supervise)."
As for whether the county's electorate will embrace spending $20 million for the new jail, Van Buren Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jackie Krutsch said it all depends on how compelling the county can make its pitch to voters.
"I think that will depend on how well the county tells their story of the need for a new jail," she said. "I was not here in Van Buren when the other sales tax elections failed, so I don't have that history. … It's going to be a wait and see situation."
Hall agreed with Krutsch's take, adding, "No one likes taxes, but it's up to us to inform the public about why we need this and how badly we need this so they will understand the need."
Looking at what long term impacts a possible 10% sales tax could have on the county, Krutsch said it would be hard to predict impacts. But she said for anyone concerned that a high sales tax rate could stifle growth, its a largely unfounded idea.
"I think in terms of recruiting industry, they're looking more at corporate income tax and incentives that the state provides," she said.
Krutsch also said Crawford County still has among the lowest property tax rates in the nation, a big draw for industry and residents alike. But she said whether residents liked it or not, essential government functions will always be funded through taxes.
"Public services have to have to be paid for, but what type of tax pays for the service? Roads, jail, fire and police projection all have to be paid for one way or another."
While Hall has real concerns about the chances of getting the tax passed, he said this time feels different and he prays he's right.
"Like I said, it failed three times. We hope the fourth time's a charm. We'll do our best to educate and give people what they need. When you go into the voting places, we would appreciate you going in and considering the facts we present."
The plan could be formally approved to place both quarter-cent sales tax proposals on the May 20 ballot following the next meeting of the Quorum Court's Jail Committee, a meeting Hall said he hoped would take place in the next week.