With a Nov. 8 vote quickly approaching, Fulton County residents recently got their first chance to ask questions about the jail financing plan they will be asked to approve.
Fulton County Judge Charles Willett and Sheriff Buck Foley appeared at an Oct. 11 development workshop to discuss the jail plan.
"Right now (we're proposing) a 24 bed facility," said Judge Willett. "The estimated cost is $2.1 million, and we're very fortunate to have a $300,000 stimulus grant to help us with the project."
Voters are being asked to approve a plan to use 17.5 percent of revenue from a sales tax already on the books to pay off construction bonds.
"It's not a new tax. Don't be confused," Willett told the audience. "It's strictly using part of a tax that has been on the books since 1989, and what we're doing is asking that you allow us to take the payment out before distributions to the county or municipalities."
Sheriff Buck Foley emphasized that the current jail, located in a basement, does not meet state standards and has been condemned.
If the jail finance plan is not approved, county officials expect the state to order the existing jail closed, which would require the county to pay other county jails to house its inmates.
Because the county usually has more inmates than cells to hold them, the county already pays to house many prisoners elsewhere, usually Izard County.
"We've paid out $60 to $70,000 this year so far, through September," said Foley.
He explained, if Fulton County had to house all of its inmates in other jails this year, the cost would be much higher.
"If we didn't have our jail here in Fulton County, I'd have housed 365 prisoners a total of 2,100 days (at other jails), for a cost of $149,856, just to house prisoners through September."
When you add in estimated costs to house all prisoners elsewhere from October through December, the bill hits $181,356.
According to Foley, that is not the total cost. You also have to factor in the cost of constant trips from Salem to Melbourne to deliver prisoners, and transport them to court dates, doctor visits and other appointments.
"So we're going to be looking at, probably, $250,000 a year to house prisoners (if the Fulton County Jail is closed)."
Willett and Foley tried to make the case that building a new jail will be much cheaper.
The estimated monthly loan payment will be $7,191, or about $86,000 a year. With a new 24 bed jail, the county will save money by not having to house inmates in other jails.
Willett is hoping the monthly payment amount will be lowered. The county has received approval for a 4-percent USDA loan, and he hopes to renegotiate down to receive the current rate of 3.75%
The sheriff is hoping to participate in a state program in which the state will pay to house four state prisoners in the new jail. The prisoners will be assigned jobs ranging from cook to maintenance to groundskeeper to help run the jail.
After hearing the county officials' presentation, one woman in the audience was convinced.
"It will cost about $225,000 to send all our inmates out, versus $86,000 a year to pay for a new jail," the woman said. "So the difference is quite a bit."
Others worried the county will not be able to afford the loan payment, plus the costs of operating a much larger jail.
"How are we going to pay for increased numbers of guards, increased power usage for laundry and kitchen in the new building?" she asked.
"The staff we have right now is all the staff we will need," Willett replied.
Sheriff Foley responded that, he believes, utilities in the new facility will actually be cheaper than at the current jail.
"We already do laundry. We already do meals. We already have jailers-slash-dispatchers. We have six full-time and I have five part-time. That will staff our jail," said Foley.
Foley added the maintenance and upkeep on the currently facility is high and sure to get higher. As an example, he explained a "naked wire" currently runs across the building, providing power to the jail. The estimated cost to run a new line is $12,500, and the repair will require shutting down power for two and a half days. The repair has been delayed in hopes the new jail will be approved.
Other questioners wanted to know when they could see final drawings for the jail, when they can see a breakdown of how the $2.1 million will be spent and when the project will be bid.
To save money, architects will not do final drawings until after the Nov. 8 election, since there will be no point in completing drawings if the jail payment plan is defeated. In addition, a final budget will not be made and bids will not be sought until the vote is taken and the project is approved.
Another member of the audience pointed out the county predicted, in July, it faced a $100,000 budget shortfall. How was that made up? she asked.
Judge Willett explained the dire July forecast was not an immediate $100,000 shortage, and there are still three months in this fiscal year to correct the problem.
"So what are you going to do if the sales tax stays down?" the woman persisted.
"That was just one month," the judge replied. "I don't know. I can't control the sales tax."
According to the judge, dedicating 17.5% of the existing one-cent sales tax for jail payments will still leave revenue to be distributed to city and county governments.
In good times, the judge believes the one cent tax brings in about $48,000 a month. But, when asked at an Oct. 17 Quorum Court meeting, Donna Hall indicated, while revenue fluctuates from month to month, income has typically been around $30,000 a month.
Besides approving the use of an existing sales tax to make local jail payments, a proposed state highway bond issue will also appear on the Nov. 8 ballot.
Governor Mike Beebe and most legislators favor the proposal to issue $575 million dollars in bonds, to be paid for with Arkansas' share of federal highway funds.
Supporters claim the bond issue will generate an estimated $1 billion in highway construction, creating 27,500 jobs.