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Washington County voters reject sales tax for jail expansion, juvenile court addition

by Stacy Ryburn | November 9, 2022 at 5:35 a.m.
The Washington County Sheriff's Office and the Washington County Detention Center is seen Aug. 27, 2021, in Fayetteville. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)

FAYETTEVILLE -- Washington County voters Tuesday rejected a proposed sales tax increase to pay for an expansion of the county's Detention Center and Juvenile Justice Center.

Complete but unofficial results showed voters opposing both issues.

Jail improvement bonds:

Against 39,426 (59%)

For 27,539 (41%)

Juvenile court improvement bonds:

Against 36,408 (54%)

For 30,528 (46%)

Washington County Sheriff Tim Helder has said for the past several years the jail exceeds its design and operating capacities.

Opponents to the tax increase and expansion plan argued the county hasn't explored other options that could eliminate or reduce the size of any expansion needed.

The county's jail opened in March 2005 with 200 detainees moved over from the old county jail in downtown Fayetteville. The third floor was left unfinished, Helder said, with the thought being it would be five years before the space was needed.

"We finished it out in one year," he said.

Helder said the jail population grew from the initial 200 to more than 500 with the first four or five years of operation. The jail has a design capacity of 710 but is considered to be full when the population reaches about 80%-85% of those 710 beds, around 570 detainees, because of legal requirements to separate different classifications of detainees.

Jon Comstock, a former circuit judge, has been active with the Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition, which opposed the jail expansion plan. Comstock said county government has chosen to pursue the jail expansion while ignoring alternatives that could reduce the jail population, eliminating the crowding problem, at much less cost. He cited the recommendation from a study commissioned by Washington County in 2019 and completed in 2020 as a starting point.

Comstock said the county should reverse its priorities and put the alternatives to incarceration on a fast track to be implemented, including hiring a diversionary case manager who could steer detainees into programs and away from the jail, including a new a mental health court, that would model the drug court and veterans court programs proven successful in getting people out of the criminal justice system.

The Quorum Court in July approved setting a special election to issue of up to $113.5 million in bonds for a jail expansion and up to $28.5 million in bonds for a Juvenile Justice Center expansion project. The bonds would be paid by a 0.25% sales tax that would expire when the bonds are paid.

Jim Langford with Spirit Architecture told the justices of the peace in June he could give them some "planning-level" information on a jail expansion. The expansion could add from 1,000 to 1,500 beds that would require from 160,000 to 170,000 square feet of new building space. Langford said the expansion would cost around $600 per square foot, which would put the cost of the project at about $96 million.

County Treasurer Bobby Hill said before the election the county is already collecting a 0.25% sales tax for jail maintenance and operation that will bring in around $14.5 million in 2022. Hill said he's budgeting for that tax to bring in around $14 million in 2023, but with the current rate of growth in sales tax revenue that amount could reach $15 million. Hill said the time needed to pay off the bonds will vary according to the amount financed and the interest the county will have to pay.

photo Detainees stand Oct. 19 in a detention area during a tour of the Washington County Detention Center in Fayetteville. (File Photo/NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)

Print Headline: Washington County jail tax fails


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