It was a dream that former Lawrence County Judge Dale Freeman never got to fully realize. For many years, the county needed a better jail and in 2014 the state threatened to close the dilapidated jail the county had been using for generations.
Freeman, along with the county’s Quorum Court, passed a resolution to build a new jail. Voters then passed two sales tax resolutions to build the $8.5 million detention center. The pitch from Freeman and other local officials was simple. It would cost $600,000 per year or more to farm prisoners out to other jails, so a new one would pay for itself in short order.
Freeman died from complications after a traffic crash in 2016 and the jail he fought for opened in March of 2017.
Local ballot initiatives to fund county jails have grown in popularity and officials with the Public Policy Center (PPC) at the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture took notice, PPC extension program associate Kristin Higgins told Talk Business & Politics. County jails consume on average about a third of a county’s budget, so decisions regarding these institutions have a significant impact on all counties in the state, she said.
Earlier this year, the PPC launched a project to compile and analyze 20 years of historic data related to local ballot issues. The interest started with jails, but has grown to include a lot of other local ballot issues. The goal is to create a comprehensive database that can be used to help make public policy decisions.
“Election results may be published in local newspapers, but the bigger picture isn’t always there,” said Higgins, who runs the extension program at the Public Policy Center. “Local sales tax and property tax elections can reveal broader community trends that cross city or county lines. But we have to build that database first.”
The Arkansas Secretary of State provides historical data about statewide ballot measures on its website, but this type of information doesn’t exist at the local level for Arkansas’ 75 counties. County clerks are responsible for maintaining records that have until recent years been all paper-based.
“We’ve been calling county clerks asking for any digital files they may have but realize a lot of the records are tucked into files somewhere, if they haven’t been destroyed,” Higgins said.
Primary areas they want to focus on are ballot issues that relate to sales tax increases, economic development, property taxes, and specific issue initiatives such as ones for jails. They are seeking data from the last 20 years, and Higgins said the reason is that the hope is that a lot of those records are digitized. PPC is not seeking school district initiatives as a part of this project, she added.
The Public Policy Center teamed up with Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia on the project. SAU has dispatched students enrolled in its Master of Public Administration program for the effort.
“We are honored and excited to have our MPA students work with the UA Cooperative Extension office in the practical application of their skills on meaningful projects,” Dr. Amber Overholser, an assistant professor and Master of Public Administration program director in SAU’s Department of History, Political Science and Geography, said. “It’s critical for students to have the opportunity to work with various stakeholders and contribute to our communities and regions.”
Saida Walker, a master of public administration student at the university, is the first intern to work on the project. Walker, a California native, graduated from Southern Arkansas University with a bachelor’s degree in English in 2018. She previously worked for the County of Los Angeles for six years and said she enjoys being part of programs that unite communities.
Walker has been asking clerks for ballot issue titles and election results of special elections called by cities, counties or through the citizen initiative process. She will also contribute input on how to share the results with the public.
One of the main problems they’ve encountered is how hard it is for counties to retrieve data on these initiatives. Many of the records in the counties are not digitized and it has been hard for some clerks to locate the records. That in and of itself could be a public policy issue that needs to be fixed, she added.
“Once we complete our project, we will share our analysis on our website,” Higgins said.
COVID-19 has slowed the collection process and they’ll need another intern later this year to continue, she said. No matter how much the project has been hampered by the pandemic, they plan to complete this database, she added.
“It might take some time … it might turn into a project of love,” Higgins said.