October 28, 2015 Edition

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Early voting starts Tuesday for
half-cent sales tax to fund jail

John Bland

Early voting begins Tuesday for the Nov. 10 special election seeking a half-percent sales tax to fund the building and maintenance of a new jail for Lawrence County.

Early and absentee voting will be conducted through the office of County Clerk Tina Stowers in the courthouse through Monday, Nov. 9.

County Judge Dale Freeman, Sheriff Jeff Yates, Deputy Sheriff Tony Waldrupe, Walnut Ridge Mayor Charles Snapp, as well as Jim Langford, architect, and Mike Kelley, director of business development, both with SouthBuild Team, spoke on behalf of the jail construction project at a recent meeting of the Walnut Ridge Kiwanis Club.

Mayor Snapp told Kiwanis members that the city of Walnut Ridge is presently in good financial shape but that the city's cost to pay for and transport prisoners to another county would devastate the city's finances.

"As a mayor, I'm in support of the judge and efforts to build a new jail," Snapp said.

Judge Freeman explained that the ballot will contain two sales tax questions. The first question will ask voters to vote for or against an eighth of a cent sales tax to fund maintenance of the new jail. The second question will be a vote for or against a three-eighth cent sales tax to build the new jail. Together, the two proposed taxes will equal a half-cent or half-percent sales tax.

Jim Langford and Mike Kelley of SouthBuild Team showed the architectural drawings from the inside and outside of the jail, which would be built on county-owned land, the former Sloan Gin property, in Southwest Walnut Ridge and near the courthouse. SouthBuild focuses on building rural detention facilities.

"We want this to be a good community neighbor outside," Langford said, referring to the proposed jail's appearance. However, on the inside, it is a jail designed to hold 100 prisoners and to be doubled in size, if needed.

"The key is designing this (jail) so it minimizes staff," Langford said, adding that staff is a long-term cost.

The total cost to build the new jail is estimated to be $8.3 to $8.4 million with the sheriff's office costing some $160 per square foot, while the jail area would cost approximately $300 per square foot to build.

After passage of the sales tax, construction would take approximately two years to get the jail built.

Lloyd Clark, a member of the jail committee and justice of the peace, said that counties are required to have a facility to lock up prisoners.

It was noted that county jails in Phillips County and Madison County have been shut down, while Marion County is in the same position with their jail as Lawrence in not meeting jail standards. Other counties in the state do maintain a jail.

Sheriff Yates explained that our current jail does not meet several of the standards required by the state.

Quick facts

The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture published a three-page handout that gives basic facts regarding the sales tax election to build the county jail and law enforcement facilities.

The proposed half-cent tax would raise the county's sales tax rate from 2 percent to 2.5 percent. The sales taxes would allow the county to issue $9.26 million in bonds to pay up front for the construction and furnishing of the new facilities.

Voters will be asked to vote on two separate issues. Once the debt is paid, in approximately 22 years, the three-eighth of a cent tax would expire. The eighth-cent tax would be permanent and pay for maintenance of the jail.

The state's Criminal Detention Facilities Review Committee found 11 deficiencies with the county's present 51-year-old jail, which is located within the courthouse. The county has been put on notice that the 42-bed jail will have to close unless the county addresses the issues. The deficiencies include inadequate square footage, only one shower for men and women and inadequate space to separate female inmates by classification.

The proposed jail and law enforcement facility is 20,000 square feet, which includes the sheriff's office and an arraignment room.

County officials say it will cost less money to build a new jail than it would cost to drive prisoners to neighboring county jails and pay to house them there at a cost of approximately $57 per day.

If approved, collection of the additional half-cent tax would begin on April 1, 2016.

There is no organized opposition to the proposal, but often people, in general, are opposed to paying a higher sales tax on their purchases.

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