In order to fund the construction of a new county jail, Crawford County residents are nearly certain to be voting on a sales tax proposal that could push the amount paid by most county residents to among the highest rates in the nation.
According to Crawford County Judge John Hall, the county is in need of a new jail in order to combat an overcrowding problem that has forced the county to house about 50 inmates in other facilities, such as the Carroll and Washington County jails.
"(The Sheriff) will do whatever is necessary to house the prisoners he's allowed to house. First off, for all these years, the state's said you've got 88 beds. You can't have over 88 prisoners. Now for the last six or seven months, we have not been over 88. We have not had more people in that jail – it's not been overcrowded, or very seldom. The trouble is now the state has come back and said, 'Wait a minute. That's not good enough. Now, or within your guidelines, you've got to segregate your prisoners according to their classifications.'"
Due to the restrictions, the need for a new jail facility has become more necessary than ever.
Attempts to contact Crawford County Sheriff Ron Brown for this story were unsuccessful, but he has previously told The City Wire that he had sent a $24 million jail expansion plan to the Quorum Court for consideration in November 2012, though no action was taken on the proposal.
The proposal would have taken the current county jail on Main Street in Van Buren from 88 beds to 317 beds, with infrastructure in place for more than 500 beds should capacity require.
A new plan discussed by the Hall and Brown would only cost about $20 million, Hall said, adding that the facility would not be located in the heart of the county's largest city, but instead in a location more easily accessible to law enforcement from across the county. Locations under consideration include the Van Buren Industrial Park or an as-of-yet undetermined location along U.S. 64 between Van Buren and Alma.
But in order to pay for a new jail, it would be necessary for voters to pass a new tax and he said there are multiple options that could be brought before voters early next year:
• A 1 cent sales tax would last for five years, though it could pay off the jail in four years based on current sales tax collections;
• A half cent sales tax would last for 10 years, though the bonds issued to pay for jail construction would be paid off within eight years; or
• A fourth cent sales would last for 20 years, with a payoff in 15.
Should voters approve the 1 cent sales tax, it would bump Van Buren's sales tax from a current 9.5% rate to 10.5%, among the highest in the nation. (Tuba City, Ariz., has the highest sales tax rate in the nation at 12.725%)
With the county having such a high sales tax rate, Hall is more than aware of the risk of losing the vote should the issue come before the voters.
"It looks like it's challenging as far as trying to find a funding source that the public will accept," he said. "We just had a tax increase on millage from over at Alma and they defeated it two to one.
But Hall said the way of housing inmates is not working. He said counties housing Crawford County inmates only accept the "best of the worst," and will force Crawford County to take back any inmates who cause problems while housed in another county's jail.
Even without the risk of having to re-claim unruly inmates, Hall said transporting inmates from distant jails to Crawford County for court hearings is not efficient, estimating that it runs upward of $200,000 per year just to transport inmates back and forth from out-of-town facilities to court.
The only saving grace, he said, is that the cost of housing inmates has not changed due to housing them at outside facilities. That rate is anywhere from $25 to $28 per day, he said, adding that the state of Arkansas would pay detention fees once an inmate was found guilty and sentenced to the Arkansas Department of Corrections.
As for what the next step is, either an election early next year or possibly something else, Hall said he was unsure. Hall was scheduled to meet with Brown at 1 p.m. today (Sept. 24) to discuss funding for a new county jail.