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Phillips County voters will head to the polls again to vote on another proposal to build a county jail.

The Quorum Court voted unanimously Thursday to hold an election on a proposal that would make a current 1 percent sales tax in the county permanent, then divert five-eighths of its revenue from cities and the port authority to the construction, and operation and maintenance of a new 100-bed jail.

If approved by voters Dec. 12, the proposal would finally give the county a jail without raising or adding taxes, but it would come at the expense of city budgets in the Delta county.

The tax revenue also would be used to rehabilitate a building on the land where the jail would go up. That building would be used for sheriff's office operations, including an intake center for juvenile detainees.

The initial construction and renovation costs would be about $8.8 million, County Judge Clark Hall said.

Hall helped get the proposal going after a group of county residents came to him and asked him how they could get a jail in the county. They opted to petition the Quorum Court for an election, and Hall had county attorneys write a petition for them to collect signatures. They collected more than 2,000, Hall said.

The proposal won't raise taxes, Hall said, and it will halt the need to pay other Arkansas jails to house the county's inmates and reduce the transportation costs of ferrying the inmates back and forth across county lines for court hearings.

"If we do not extend this tax and build this facility ... at the rate we are consuming so much of our general revenue paying other people to keep our problems, then we're going to run out of money in our county," Hall said.

Helena-West Helena Mayor Jay Hollowell expressed concern about the proposal.

His city would lose $700,000 annually, about 7.5 percent of its $9.3 million budget. The city has already cut its budget by nearly $3 million over the past several years because of falling revenue from its decreasing population.

"I don't think we can cut enough to offset $700,000 in revenue," Hollowell said. "We can't stop picking up the trash."

With an estimated 2016 population of 10,827, Helena-West Helena is the largest city in Phillips County and would lose the most money of any city under the proposal.

The other cities are Marvell, Elaine, Lexa and Lake View. The county also receives a portion of the sales tax, although less than Helena-West Helena. Helena-West Helena also diverts a portion of its sales tax proceeds to the port authority.

The sales tax generates just more than $2 million each year countywide, according to Helena-West Helena officials.

The 1 percent sales tax being voted on has been in place for 30 years already, Hall said. It's been renewed every 10 years and is set to expire in 2020.

Hollowell said Helena-West Helena city officials would put together data and information to present to voters before the election, explaining how the proposal would affect the city's revenue and budget. If it passes, he said, the city would need to find another revenue source to keep the services it now offers residents.

The county has been without a jail since 2013, when a state inspection found deficient locks, overflowing drains and other potentially unsafe conditions.

Since then, the county has had to transport some arrestees and offenders to other county jails and release others. In 2015, officials estimated that they spend $750,000 each year to transport and house inmates in jails in Wynne, Forrest City and other neighboring towns.

Hall said inmates are also taken to Pulaski and Garland counties. The county has about 70 inmates in jails across Arkansas, he said.

The county has gotten into legal trouble in recent years for not getting inmates to their mandatory Rule 8 hearings within 72 hours of being arrested, Hall said.

The county has proposed tax increases to fund a jail since 2013, but the efforts have failed, Hall said. In one instance, voters approved a bond issue for a jail but not the tax increase that would have paid for the bonds.

Metro on 10/17/2017

Print Headline: Phillips County JPs approve jail-tax bid

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