Local political issues rarely seem to interest most people I know except for local politicians, but for some reason the election concerning the Pulaski County Jail Tax has piqued everyone’s interest.
I think this is for two reasons. When it comes to adding prison or jail space, there is a philosophical aspect to the debate. The issue naturally leads itself to discussions about what is the purpose of our criminal justice system in general: punishment or rehabilitation. As a self-described progressive, I want the purpose of our correctional system to be rehabilitation. On the other hand, I know the history of corrections in the U.S. in the past thirty years all too well, and while rehabilitation is a worthy goal – it has largely been abandoned. Also, we do try to rehabilitate criminals here in Pulaski County. Even the rehabilitation efforts are being undermined by the lack of jail space because there is no consequence for failing to attend drug treatment or community service if the only result of non-attendence is a meaningless jail sentence.
In many ways, the critics of the jail tax are right – adding more jail space won’t “solve” the problem causing crime. Of course it won’t – and no one is suggesting otherwise. To me, the issue is more simple – there has to be an optimal number of jail beds for a community our size. Even the opponents of the tax in its current format admit that we need more jail space. Their objection is that we only need 1,300 or so beds as opposed to 1,600, and that the tax should only be 1/8 instead of 1/4 cent. If that is the best argument the organized opposition can mount, I’ll defer to the findings of the Public Safety Task Force who originally proposed the increase in its present format.
On Tuesday, I’ll be voting for the tax. That being said – there are some other issues that have sparked intense conversation. While these aren’t reasons to vote against the tax- they are reasons to question the wisdom and integrity of the proponents of the tax. For example, why do we need a special election for this tax? Why was it not set at the same time as either the school board election in two weeks or better yet in November’s general election? I’m told that is will cost the county $100,000 to have this election, but my numbers may be off. The reason to have it as a special election is obvious – the jail tax is more likely to pass if it is a special election because only those most interested in the issue will come out. While this may be a shrewd and politically savvy move – it is also extremely cynical and in some ways undemocratic. Shouldn’t our Quorum Court have the goal of allowing election issues to be considered and decided by the largest number of voters? If elections were free, I would not be as concerned but the willingness to waste, and waste is an appropriate term in this case, $100,000 of taxpayer money just to increase the odds of the jail tax passing is something that should not be quickly forgotten.
I have a second issue with the jail tax. As is repeated in every article about the tax – less than a year ago the Quorum Court voted to reduce the jail space by about 260 beds. I assumed the reason was lack of operating funds. What I have been told instead is that portions of the jail are essentially uninhabitable. There are significant structural problems, mainly with the roof, and the portions of the roof need to be fixed. This naturally begs the question: who designed the roof, who constructed the roof, and is anyone being held accountable for any flaws. My information might be wrong but I’m curious as to this issue.
The Quorum Court has released a “Q and A” about the jail tax, which I am reposting here verbatim.
1) What is the Proposal?
Increase Sales and Use Tax by ¼ cent on each dollar of goods or services purchased in Pulaski County This would equal .01¢ on a $4.00 purchase, .25¢ on a $100.00 purchase, and would be capped at a maximum $6.25 on a $2,500.00 purchase.
2) Who made the Proposal?
The Proposal was referred to the Pulaski County Quorum Court by a Task Force composed of citizens and the mayors of all cities within Pulaski County.
3) When is the Election?
The Election will be held on September 12, 2006. Early voting will begin at the Pulaski County Courthouse on August 28, 2006 and at other off-site locations on September 4, 2006.
4) How will the Revenue be used?
Fund the re-opening of 250 beds in the work release center which were closed December 31, 2005 due to budget cuts. Fund 196 new minimum to medium security beds Fund 292 new maximum security beds Repair mechanical and structural deficiencies in the pre-1994 Detention Facility Provide a minimum of $750,000 annually for Prevention, Intervention and Treatment programs Provide operating funds without relying on municipal contributions for support
5) Why do we Need a tax?
In 2005, with the Regional Detention Facility available to house 1,125 inmates, the facility closed every other day. When revenue shortfalls required the Pulaski County Quorum Court to cut $7 million from the operating budgets of all General Fund Departments, the Pulaski County Sheriff was forced to reduce available beds to 800. This was increased to the current number of 880 through additional funding provided by the municipalities within Pulaski County however, even with the additional 80 beds, the facility remains closed virtually all of the time. Closure of the facility results in individuals charged with the following offenses being released immediately following arrest, or after a short time in a holding facility, on a citation to appear in court. Burglary (Commercial and Residential) Manufacturing or Sale of Drugs (Meth) Identity Theft Theft of Property DWI Hot Check Violations Failure to Appear in Court Failure to Pay Fines and Fees Possession of a Controlled Substance
6) Is there a relationship between the number of Violent Crimes and the number of days the Jail is Closed?
As reflected on the chart on the jump, as the jail began to close, violent crimes increased.
7) What about having a “tent city”?
When Pulaski County had the funds necessary, it had the equivalent of a “tent city” in the Work Release Center. This was a converted warehouse which housed 250 inmates who provided garbage pickup, roadway ditch cleaning, and other work on public property for the County and local municipalities. If the ¼¢ tax passes, this Work Release Center will re-open January 2007.
8) Will Pulaski County have a $10 million surplus at the end of 2006?
NO. The County has a balanced budget with no anticipated “surplus”.
9) Will Pulaski County receive a windfall due to reappraisal?
NO. The County will not receive a windfall due to the reappraisal. Pulaski County may see an increase in Property Tax Revenue of approximately $750,000.
10) Are inmates given a free ride?
NO. Inmates have to pay for personal phone calls and, when possible, inmates are charged for food and medical care.
11) Why doesn’t UAMS take care of sick inmates?
UAMS is unable to provide free medical care for all inmates in the Pulaski County Detention Facility.
12) Why can’t funds for the Trolley and Bridges be used for the jail?
Funds being used for the operation of the Trolley and for maintenance work on bridges are restricted revenues which can only be used on public transportation and pedestrian projects.
13) Why not have the election in November as part of the General Election?
This issue is vitally important to the quality of life of Pulaski County citizens. The issue would be overshadowed on the November ballot by major statewide campaigns with millions of dollars to spend on advertising. In addition, a November vote would delay the implementation of the tax until the beginning of the 2nd Quarter of 2007, which, in turn, would delay the opening of any new beds until that time.
14) Why not a 1/8¢ operating tax and a 1/8¢ capital tax for a limited time?
While initially this proposal would provide immediate relief and necessary funds for the construction of the new facilities, it would not provide a sustainable funding source to operate the expanded facility past 2009. This would leave Pulaski County and its law enforcement entities in the same situation it is in for 2006.
15) What happens if the ¼¢ proposal fails?
Total number of available beds to house inmates will be decreased to 800.