story by Ryan Saylor
It's official. Crawford County voters will vote May 20 on ballot titles that would issue bonds to be repaid by a half cent sales tax for the construction of a new county jail and also fund law enforcement operations in the county sheriff's office with a quarter cent sales tax.
The two titles approved by the Crawford County Quorum Court Monday (Feb. 17) will be the fourth time the county's elected officials have asked residents to approve funding for a new county jail, with the last vote coming in 2005, according to Sheriff Ron Brown. While the three previous attempts failed to gain enough traction for passage, Brown said this time will be different, explaining that the county's jail is simply overflowing despite attempts to expand capacity.
"We enclosed three of the four exercise yards, we've manipulated walls — we've done everything we can. Still we're not in compliance (with state law). And I think that we can show, or I know I can show the voting citizens of Crawford County the numbers and the need for this. We're a growing population. We are in the top 12 (counties based on population) and we've got a small jail."
If approved, the sales tax rates in the county's largest cities — Alma and Van Buren — will jump from a current rate of 9.5% to a rate of 10.25%, among the highest local sales tax rates in the United States.
Before voting on placing the sales tax vote on the ballot, which would fund the $20 million jail project, Justice of the Peace James Lane made clear his opposition to the plan, saying that it was cobbled together and not well thought out.
"I feel like we're flying by the seat of our pants building this jail just like the bunch did that built that jail over there," Lane said, pointing to the west side of the room toward Sebastian County.
Lane said the county should have brought in experts in jailing to work with county officials to determine the best course of action, but he said no such action was taken.
In addition to voting on the ballot issues, Brown and Crawford County Judge John Hall for the first time presented various sites under consideration for the jail. The locations, Hall said, were received after the county took out an ad in a local newspaper seeking property for the jail.
While a previous location floated for the jail included the Van Buren Industrial Park, no such location was presented to the media Monday. Instead, there were four locations along Fayetteville Road in Van Buren, with three of those being located close to residential areas and another across the street from a local church. The three Fayetteville Road locations, all north of Interstate 40, are also in close proximity to Northridge Middle School.
In addition to the four locations along Fayetteville Road, there are four locations along U.S. Highway 64 between Van Buren and Alma, as well as a fifth U.S. Highway 64 location near the Alma Walmart Supercenter.
When asked about the possible locations, especially those along Fayetteville Road, Hall was quick to say voters should not expect those locations to be viable.
"I think the sheriff and myself and the people that understands the need to get out, emergency vehicles to travel and everything, I think it would be defeating our purpose to go up 59 Highway (Fayetteville Road). So we've got a property here on Kibler Road, we've got four locations on 64 Highway. … We've got some good locations that's been offered."
Asked if the potential new jail, which is projected to house more than 250 inmates, would impact property values, especially if located near a residential area, Hall was adamant.
"No. Not in the areas where these properties been located. Because the properties located out on 64, one of them is right beside the Yaffe junk yard. One of them is just an old building. And one of them is Moore's, and there's nothing around it. He's got trailer sales. He's got 15 or 20 acres. There's nothing around it except the interstate on the back. And the other one, Keiwit's on it right now and it's a big construction site, so I don't think it would have any affect on the property values. It's not going to be put in a residential district."
The May 20 sales tax vote will ask voters to approve both sales taxes in separate votes, one for a half-cent for nine years to build the jail and another for a quarter-cent to fund law enforcement operations. Should the construction pass, but operations fail, attorney Ryan Bowman of Friday Eldridge and Clark told the Quorum Court that they could decide to not issue the bonds by a vote of two-thirds majority. Should the operations pass and construction fail, though, he said the Quorum Court would have to put the issue of whether to eliminate the tax to the voters.