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Voters side against Benton County jail expansion

Benton County refuses sales taxes to expand facility by Tracy Neal, Stacy Ryburn | November 9, 2022 at 5:40 a.m.
Inmates at the Benton County Jail sit in D Block on Oct. 14 in Bentonville. Voters went to the polls Tuesday to decide whether to expand the jail because of overcrowding. (File photo/NWA Democrat-Gazette/Spencer Tirey)

BENTONVILLE -- Voters on Tuesday rejected two measures to pay for an expansion of the Benton County Jail and its operation.

Complete but unofficial results showed voters rejecting a one-eighth percent sales tax increase to pay for the jail expansion.

Against 55,996 (63%)

For 32,325 (37%)

Complete but unofficial results showed voters rejecting a one-quarter percent sales tax increase to pay for operations of the jail.

Against 55,690 (62%)

For 33,485 (38%)

Benton County Sheriff Shawn Holloway said the expansion is needed to deal with jail overcrowding. Numerous other county elected officials supported the proposal.

The jail population has exceeded 800 at times this year, according to Holloway.

Jail capacity is 669 beds, though that doesn't mean it can hold 669 people. Detainees must be segregated by different categories, including separate spaces for women and men, misdemeanor and felony offenders, sex offenders and those awaiting trial.

A county criminal justice committee recommended earlier this year nearly $250 million be spent on jail expansion and a courts complex. The Benton County Quorum Court agreed to seek voters' approval of the two sales tax issues that were on the ballot.

Money from the one-eighth percent increase would have ended when the bonds are paid off. The one-fourth percent increase would have been permanent.

The county's proposal called for the project to be completed in three phases.

The first phase -- a jail expansion and criminal justice complex -- would have begun in 2023, according to plans presented to the Quorum Court.

The second phase, a medical/mental health addition, will begin/would have begun in 2025. It would have included a new dormitory with 192 beds and a medical/mental health space with 56 beds, said Andy Pitts with TreanorHL, an architecture firm based in Kansas City, Mo.

The final phase, a jail renovation, would have begun in 2026. The existing housing pods would have been updated, and the existing intake/support area would have been renovated.

The total cost of the jail expansion was estimated to be $241 million, Pitts said.

The ballot measures only concerned expanding the jail because justices of the peace planned to pay for a courts project with existing county money.

Benton County Judge Barry Moehring said last month if the measures fail, the county will have to look at a scaled-down version that involves adding only beds to the jail without the space for medical and mental health, along with an area for treatment programs, he said.

Sarah Moore of the Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition and Jon Comstock, a former Benton County circuit judge, spoke against the expansion project at several county meetings. The two proposed the county start a pretrial diversion program and a texting program to remind people of their court dates and examine the county's bond system as ways to combat jail crowding.

Print Headline: Voters side against Benton County jail expansion


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