Officials: new jail could cost more than one-cent tax increase

Madison County dispatcher Coy Whelchel talks with a visitor to the county’s jail Tuesday. The jail was converted into a 24-hour holding facility in 2015.

The cost to maintain and operate a new jail could require more than a one-cent sales tax, according to officials with the Madison County Clerk’s Office.

According to information provided by the clerk’s office, the county has received at least three estimates in recent years: one for the renovation and expansion of the county’s current detention facility, and two for the construction of a new jail. The county’s current jail was converted to a 24-hour holding facility in 2015 following several years of noncompliance with state standards.

The first estimate, submitted by Clements and Associates, Inc., would include the renovation of the jail and a 2,180-square-foot addition, bringing the six-bed jail up to a 12-bed one, with the options to add 13 ground-level beds and additional beds on a second level later on.  That was estimated by the firm to cost $1,480,181.

The clerk’s office estimated that the bond payments on that facility would cost $327,117.48 per year, with the bond’s lifespan at five years.

The second estimate, presented by South Build, was for a 60-bed jail on the old Gaskill Ford property, where the county has built a parking lot. It would have the option to add 25-30 beds at a later date, with a price tag of $8.2 million. The office estimated that the payment on that bond, with a life of 20 years, would be approximately $538,110.48 per year.

The third estimate, provided by Elton L. Roe, came in at $4.2 million. It also would be a 60-bed jail on the Gaskill Ford property, and a 10-year bond would be estimated to cost the county $510,275.52 annually.

The Roe and South Build estimates do not include land or other site improvements, according to the figures, and bond payments were estimated based on a presumed 4 percent interest rate.

Under those estimates, what Madison County currently pays to outside counties to house inmates could cover little more than the annual bond payment. Last year, Madison County spent a total of $575,467 toward inmate housing. Of that, $2,835 went to Carroll County, with $572,632 going to Washington County.

Washington County charges the county $62 per day per inmate, while Carroll County charges $35 per day per inmate; however, space at the Carroll County is much more limited than in Washington County.

Through May of this year, the county has spent $235,545 toward inmate housing. The Madison County Quorum Court passed the county’s annual budget late last year, which allotted $588,000 toward inmate housing for all of 2019.

If a new jail were to be built, Madison County Sheriff Rick Evans said he thinks it should be bigger than those proposed 60-bed facilities.

“To prepare any at all for the future, I would say we need a 100-bed jail,” Evans said. “That’s preparing a bare minimum for the future. We’re running 45-60 people a month in jail. A 100-bed jail wouldn’t be overdoing anything, and that allows for the people we’re letting out that should be staying in.”

Evans said he doesn’t consider expanding the current facility an option, adding that if the county did elect to – or even if it built a new 60-bed facility – that it would be “full when we open the door.” He added that the current jail was outdated when it was built.

“We have a water problem over there now,” Evans said. Sheriff’s personnel had to move sandbags around the entrance of the facility last week due to heavy rain that hit the area. “Water runs into our building, and if you build on here, then you’re catching all the water that flows from the street.”

Maintenance and Operation

Not including the bond payment, maintenance and operations of a new jail could cost more than $1 million annually, Madison County Clerk Tamitha Blocker said.

According to figures provided by the clerk’s office, Van Buren County – which has a 64-bed facility – budgeted $994,068.64 for maintenance and operations of the jail last year. Sevier County and Columbia County, which both have 75-bed facilities, budged $1,517,437.66 and $1,698,204 in 2018, respectively.

Arkansas County has a 108-bed facility. In 2018, it budgeted $1,638,023 for maintenance and operations. Carroll County, which has a 102-bed facility, budgeted $1,806,943 for maintenance and operations for its jail this year. That’s a large increase from when it opened in 2007, when it budgeted $1,193,925.

“A lot of that’s your personnel services, your staffing, health insurance increases, raises – that sort of thing,” Blocker said. “So as you can see, that’s a pretty substantial hit.”

There are ways to offset that cost, Carroll County Chief Deputy Jerry Williams said, namely by housing state prisoners. Currently, counties – including Madison County – regularly continue housing inmates after they’re sentenced to the Arkansas Department of Correction, as they await a bed in the state prison. The state pays the county $30 per day per inmate. Currently, that’s still a loss for Madison County, which is paying $62 per day to house those inmates in Washington County.

However, if the county owned its own facility, that money from the state would go straight to the county. If a county opted to take on more state prisoners than what it’s producing, it could put a dent in the annual maintenance and operations costs, Williams said.

“Let’s say you filled up your jail with 50 inmates who were actually state inmates, and you were only housing 25-30 people of your own,” Williams said. “You’re talking about $540,000 you can actually make just on state inmates.”

Williams also said services such as commissary could contribute to the budget.

“There are lots of ways that a jail can – at least in Madison County, in my mind – can possibly make $400,000-$700,000 a year in offsetting costs.”

Williams estimated that in state reimbursement, Carroll County received “close to $300,000” last year.

With a 100-bed jail, Evans was skeptical that the county could make much money because it might not be able to lend as many beds to out-of-county prisoners.

“We’re not going to make a lot of money,” Evans said. “We could get on the list to house state prisoners until they were ready to go, and it helps pay for your day-to-day operations, and if you have empty beds anyway, that does give a little bit of income.”

Last year, Madison County was reimbursed a total of $64,326.2 by the City of Huntsville and the State of Arkansas. This year, those entities have reimbursed the county $30,118.34.

Sales tax increase needed

In unincorporated areas of Madison County, the sales tax rate is 8.5 percent. In the City of Huntsville, it increases to 10.5 percent.

Blocker said that over the last three years, a one-cent sales tax has brought in an average of about $1.3 million per year to Madison County, but that could fluctuate.

“Personally, I don’t think a one cent sales tax would be enough to pay [for a new jail],” Blocker said. “When the economy tanked in 2008, our sales tax dropped $217,000 that year. So looking to the future, even though our average is about $1.3 million, the next time there’s an economic collapse you’re down to $1 million or $1.1 million. So you also have to consider that when you’re looking at the future and operating costs.”

The county does have a dedicated one-cent sales tax for the Road and Bridge Department, and one cent for Madison County EMS. Blocker said the funds produced by those taxes are needed by those departments.

“It would be detrimental to those two departments [if they did not have those taxes],” she said.

Evans said he was unsure that even a two-cent sales tax could cover the costs of the jail and the staffing needed to man it, but that he hopes voters would consider that option in the future. The Washington County Detention Center is reportedly reaching capacity, and according to an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette article last week, one of the county’s justices of the peace questioned why they continue to house inmates from other counties. Evans said that Washington County Sheriff Tim Helder “is outstanding to work with,” but “there could always be that chance” that the facility reaches a point that it has to turn away inmates from Madison County.

“Benton County’s full, Carroll County’s full ... everybody’s full,” Evans said.

Evans also lauded the possible benefits to the county outside of the jail being a deterrent to would-be criminals: benefits such as jobs and economic growth.

“Not having a jail, it’s costly to the taxpayers, and it’s inconvenient for us,” he said. “Think about the benefits that we could gain of it. It would be beneficial to us to have a jail and more staff – that would outweigh what we’re doing now.

“You take what we’re paying over there, and with it we create a new jail and we create jobs. We have people to move here to fill those positions, and they pay taxes, they buy homes and they eat out.”

The quorum court approved the creation of a savings account toward a future jail project in 2016, an account that currently has $750,326.06. That savings, though, could amount to only a down payment, or costs exceeding what’s already been estimated.

“These [estimates] are a few years old, and they’re that: estimates,” Blocker said. “Usually, you need to add 15-20 percent to what they tell you ... I really think [the jail fund] is going to take care of the extra costs when you build something, plus the site work and improvements that would be necessary.

“People would have to be very generous with their sales tax, because it’ll take more than a penny.”

Targeting crime

At the St. Paul Town Council meeting last month, residents and aldermen voiced concerns to visiting justices of the peace about concerns of high crime in that area. Evans said last week that crime isn’t centralized in one area of the county, but throughout the entire region, from St. Paul and Combs up through Carroll County.

A jail, in addition to more staffing, he said, would deter that.

“[Crime’s] everywhere,” Evans said. “And it is a problem when you don’t have enough people to be proactive, and all you can be is reactive.”

Currently, Evans has eight full-time deputies and two school resource officers under his command.

“That’s for 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said, adding that they also have to take on the responsibility of transporting inmates to Washington County and back to Madison County for their court dates. “We’re handling those prisoners, whereas if we had a jail here, we wouldn’t have [deputies] out on long-distance travel.”

Evans said that he tries to have an average of two deputies on the clock at any given time, but there are times the county only has one. Rarely, he said, but at times, that one has to transport an inmate out-of-county, leaving the areas of Madison County outside Huntsville city limits virtually unprotected.

“There are times, but we try not to have them do that when they’re the only one here,” Evans said. “We try to put the transport off until we have two, or even to the daytime when I do transports myself.”

To prevent costs – and filling up Washington County even more – Evans said that many people charged with misdemeanors are cited and released, and those committing the crimes are well aware of that.

“We’re letting misdemeanors out who probably should be in jail. We’re letting them out because of the price it costs to keep them per day,” Evans said. “And right now, a lot of them feel like they’re not going to be put in jail because of the price that it costs, so they can get away with misdemeanor crimes and little things. But if we had a place to house them ourselves, where we could keep them there, they would at least think that they’re probably going to go to jail for a little while.”

Planning stage

The county has also put together a commission to research the jail issue and possible solutions. According to Madison County Judge Frank Weaver, that commission includes Evans, Huntsville Police Chief Todd Thomas, Circuit Judge Mark Lindsay, District Judge Dale Ramsey, justices of the peace Larry Garrett and Pattie Shinn, and more.

Weaver said the group hasn’t met since last year, but he hopes to present numbers – including what other counties spend to operate their jails, and what Madison County could be looking at – by the end of this month. Weaver also said that there may be interest in a regional jail, which would require partnerships with neighboring counties.

Weaver didn’t dismiss the idea of a future sales tax proposal going before voters again, though he said that would be determined by the commission and then voted on by the quorum court. Madison County voters rejected a one-cent sales tax that would fund, in part, renovations to the jail. That tax was defeated 785-721 (52 percent to 48 percent).

“I don’t know,” Weaver said on Monday when asked if he thought a tax would pass if it were presented to voters now. “I think we need to try to educate citizens on what we see the actual cost being, and let them decide if they want to fund something like that.”

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