VAN BUREN -- The Crawford County Quorum Court has voted to impose a higher fee on cities for housing their prisoners even though county officials admit that they can't justify the increase.
The Quorum Court voted 11-1 Monday, with one abstention, to replace a 20-year-old fee system that charged Crawford County municipalities $10 a meal for its prisoners in the county jail, essentially $30 a day, with a flat fee that will charge cities $40 a day per prisoner.
Going into Monday's meeting, the Quorum Court had proposed imposing a $50-a-day fee. Van Buren Mayor Bob Freeman told Quorum Court members that such an increase would have resulted in Van Buren's jail bill for August rising from $22,400 to $51,000. He said it was uncertain what fees would be like in the future.
"I don't know if that's going to stay the same, and I don't think you do," Freeman said.
Freeman, Sheriff Ron Brown and Quorum Court members agreed that the county cannot say whether the new fee fairly charges cities for the county's cost of housing their prisoners.
According to Quorum Court members, the idea was to institute the flat fee, see how much revenue it generated, how it affected the county's municipalities and then make adjustments until they hit upon a fee that charged the cities fairly.
Freeman suggested using a third party to sort out the variables that make up the jail's expenses and come up with a jail fee that is equitable for the county and for the cities that use the jail.
County officials agreed to let Freeman take the lead in finding an analyst. Freeman said in a letter to Quorum Court members that he would request that Van Buren pay for the analysis if the cost were reasonable.
Brown told Quorum Court members that a new system for charging jail fees is needed because calculating monthly bills for various cities in the county is so complicated that it absorbs much of a supervisor's time. A flat fee would make things more simple for the sheriff's office.
But Brown said there are many variables in determining what that fee should be. He called other counties that have been in Crawford County's position and asked what they did.
"You never redesign the wheel," he said. "You get someone else's wheel, and put your name on it."
One complication, Brown said, is that his office never kept statistics before moving into its current 307-bed jail in November 2016. The jail fees his office collects don't stay with the jail but go into the general fund.
It is uncertain what the fee would pay for, he said. He told Quorum Court members that the revenue could cover just jail expenses or include things such as depreciation on the building, the jail's fleet of eight cars and other expenses.
The number of prisoners also varies constantly. Brown said the jail could take in 25 prisoners one day and two the next, which would affect the flow of fees into the jail.
An Arkansas Supreme Court decision in February also put more of a financial burden on his office, he said.
In a 2014 lawsuit, Mississippi County v. cities of Blytheville, Dell, Manila and Leachville, the court ruled that cities with misdemeanor prisoners in the county jail must pay the expenses for those prisoners until they are sentenced, after which the county must take over paying their expenses. For felony prisoners, municipalities pay for their prisoners' expenses until they are formally charged.
Before that ruling, Brown said, cities were responsible for all of their misdemeanor prisoner expenses until the prisoners were released from jail. After the Supreme Court's ruling, he said, he went back and recalculated Van Buren's March $21,000 jail bill. It was reduced to $13,400, he said.
State Desk on 10/18/2018