Sheriff seeks $24 million Crawford County jail expansion

by The City Wire staff ( 8 views 

If you ask Crawford County Sheriff Ron Brown what the county's biggest need is right now, he will say a new jail.

The county jail is at capacity and some county inmates are housed in neighboring Washington County while others roam the streets after being released on low bond and others on reporting bonds while they await sentencing or transfer to the Arkansas Department of Corrections, according to Brown.

Even though Brown says the county is in need of a new jail, or at least an expansion to the current county jail, he says the Quorum Court has not acted.

"I presented a plan in November to the court and there has been no action at this point," Brown said.

The plan he presented to the Quorum Court included a $24 million plan to renovate the existing jail facility on Main Street in Van Buren.

As part of the plan presented by Brown, the jail would go from a capacity of 88 beds up to a capacity of 317 beds. The facility would also have infrastructure in place to expand to more than 500 beds at a later time, if needed.

In order to pay for the jail expansion, Brown, with the help of a bond attorney, presented a plan for a 3/4-cent sales tax proposal that would use 3/8-cent for construction of the jail and an ongoing 3/8-cent sales tax to fund operations of the jail.

"We figured we could finance for 16 years, but pay it off in 11 years," he said.

While Brown presented those figures to the Quorum Court, members of the court did not seem receptive to putting a new tax before Crawford County voters, according to District 4 Justice of the Peace Lloyd Cole.

"I haven't convinced everyone on the Quorum Court that that's what we need to do," Cole said. "Until we get to that point, a proposal to the citizens is sort of a waste of time."

Cole, a full-time parole officer, said any expenditures for jail operations is never popular among tax payers.

"No one wants to fund a jail," he said. "People just don't want to raise taxes to build a bigger jail. I'm in a position where I see all this crime occurring and I see how bad we need a jail. But the general public doesn't see it and it will be hard to get them to support a new jail."

County Judge John Hall said even if the public and some members of the Quorum Court are against the jail plan, now is the time to start educating the public on the need for the new jail and to get a tax on the ballot.

Hall said he has asked Brown when the sheriff would press the Quorum Court to act on the issue.

"If he's not, I'm going to move it forward," Hall said, explaining that he did not want a jail sales tax vote to possibly occur at the same time the county would vote on renewal of a one cent sales tax that supports operations in both cities and the county.

"I can't run both of these issues at the same time because we'll get them both beat," Hall said. "He needs to run his issue."

Brown said he would be more than happy to run the sales tax, but he says it is up to the Quorum Court.

"I have no authority to put this to a vote, it's only the Quorum Court," he said. "Unless they say yes, I'm dead in the water."

Cole agreed, saying that the court would push for a vote of the public only if they felt the public would be in support of a new jail.

"We're reaching a point with (sales taxes) where you're beyond what people can handle," Cole said. "We don't want to spend money to put it on the ballot if it's not going to win."

Brown added that while the county jail is at capacity, criminals awaiting trials or sentencing for crimes not considered severe or dangerous are roaming the streets, in many cases committing even more crimes.

He said while county officials and the public argue about how to fund additional beds and renovations to the jail, the public's safety is at risk.

"(Crawford County is in) the top 10 in the state," Brown said, referring to crime statistics. "This is a great county, but let's do something before someone gets hurt."

Should the worse happen, Brown said he has no doubt citizens and the Quorum Court will spend the money for a new jail.

"When someone I've let out kills someone, I'll get a $50 million jail. But let's do something before that happens."