FAYETTEVILLE -- Washington County voters will decide Nov. 8 if they want to raise the sales tax to pay for a jail expansion to address overcrowding.
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 plan argue the county hasn't explored other options that could eliminate or reduce the size of any expansion needed.
The Quorum Court in July approved setting a Nov. 8 special election on a proposal 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.
Election day is Nov. 8. Early voting starts Monday.
"About seven years ago, I said we have got to start planning for the future," Helder said. "Our current facility was planned for expansion, but they built it based on what they thought we could get passed at the time. We were forewarned that it would be adequate for 10 or 15 years. It was about 10 years from the time we opened that we hit capacity."
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.
On Wednesday, the jail population was 787, with 155 detainees sleeping on mats on the jail floor to meet the separation requirements. Helder said the number of detainees sleeping on the floor is averaging between 130 and 155.
Jon Comstock, a former circuit judge, has been active with the Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition, which opposes 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.
"The assessment told them there are a multitude of things they could do," Comstock said. "These are things that are common sense for the most part and very inexpensive, for instance expanding pretrial services so people won't have to be rearrested for failure to appear or for another offense. But right at the same time they're submitting this huge jail expansion project to the voters."
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.
"My concern is that it's all talk," Comstock said. "They passed an ordinance to do this jail expansion, and they talk in circles about about pretrial services, which could eliminate the need for the expansion."
Comstock said cost should be a greater concern among county officials and among voters when considering building a bigger jail because no one has yet said how the county will pay to staff and operate the larger facility.
"How are they going to operate it?" he said. "We don't know. I suspect, if they are successful in getting it built, they will come back to the voters and say 'We need another tax to operate it.' It's really common sense to try these alternatives first. They're not 'pie-in-the-sky' notions. They're things that have been done in other locations."
Patrick Deakins is justice of the peace for District 5 on the Quorum Court and the Republican party candidate for county judge. Deakins said he sees the need for alternative programs, adding a larger jail can make many of those programs more likely to be implemented.
"What is does is it gives us some flexibility to do what's best for the county and for the community," Deakins said. "Right now, with many of these programs, we don't have the staffing or the space needed to operate. I think the expansion can be designed to provide for space for expanded mental health treatment, a mental health court or substance abuse programming. At the same time, we will need to have room to incarcerate those people who need to be held in custody."
Josh Moody, the Democratic Party candidate for county judge, has worked with the county's juvenile courts system for several years. Moody said he sees first-hand that incarceration doesn't solve most problems and may create more.
"As jail beds are filled, it makes more families vulnerable to poverty, to hunger, to homelessness, to drug abuse," he said.
Moody said the county needs to focus on the alternatives already identified and search for more.
"The data is there," he said. "It's been shown in study after study. The best practices have been vetted in many locations."
Moody said if elected he would insist on the county incorporating space for alternative programming needs into the jail expansion if voters approve it. He said he doubts voters will give their approval in November.
"I don't think most people have an appetite for more taxes," he said.
Helder said he believes most Washington County voters trust and support local law enforcement and will understand the need for a larger jail as the area continues to grow in population. He said the reality is that with a growing population Washington County has seen a growing and changing crime problem.
"We have 14 people in jail right now for capital murder," Helder said. "It used to be we might go years without a single murder. And a large number of the people we have aren't one-time offenders, they are here over and over again. We have one individual who has been booked into our jail 77 times. Most of these people are poor decision-makers, and they will continue to make poor decisions. We need to have a place to put them."
The expansion plan
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.
Sales tax revenue
County Treasurer Bobby Hill said 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 if voters approved the 0.25% sales tax to pay off the construction bonds for a jail expansion, and collection averaged $14 million per year, the county could pay off the $113.5 million in just over eight years. If the bond amount is lower or sales tax collection continue to grow, the bonds could be paid off sooner than that, he said.
Criminal justice assessment
A $60,000 study by the National Center for State Courts was commissioned by Washington County’s Quorum Court in 2019 as the justices of the peace were looking for alternatives to what was then a $38 million expansion of the jail to address crowding. The report was completed in 2020 and recommended the county expand services for pretrial detainees to avoid the need for them to be incarcerated, with suggestions including lower bond amounts, a mental health court, expanded mental health and substance abuse services. A Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee was recommended as the best way to bring together the different elements of the criminal justice system to consider these issues. The committee is still meeting, but the county hasn’t adopted any of the suggestions. The report from the National Center for State Courts can be found on the county website at washingtoncountyar.gov by searching for Washington County AR CJ Assessment.
Source: Washington County