by Max Brantley
County Judge Buddy Villines has called a special meeting of the Quorum Court at 7 p.m. Wednesday to consider ordinances calling a special election Sept. 12 on a quarter-cent sales tax increase to pay for county jail construction and operation. (NOTE: I have corrected the original post, which erroneously said there were two separate proposals, one for operation and one for construction.)
The ordinance to put the tax increase to a vote has 10 sponsors – JPs Green, Dicker, Goss, Dean, Massey, Williams, Roberson, Johnson, Lewison and Rollins. That means it will pass. But Tuesday night, it appeared the Quorum Court is short the necessary votes to call a special election on the increase.
The Pulaski County Republican Committee, which wants to use the jail tax as a wedge issue to elect Republican candidates, notably an opponent of Kathy Lewison, has already issued a statement opposing the proposal.
A letter from Jim Magnus, the GOP county chair, says the tax increase is too much, though it doesn’t say how much would be acceptable. The committee also opposes a special election. It favors general election consideration, when more people traditionally vote, as opposed to the presumably narrow interest voters in a special election. (Our observation is that this conventional wisdom cuts both ways.)
I’m undecided on this method of financing, though not the need to do something about the jail. I don’t like using the sales tax. But various progressive voices have made the case that there are few realistic options. Cutting the fat isn't one. Jails are expensive and we have an oversupply of people qualified to live there.
I understand the special election argument and am happy to see a general election vote. The situation is dire. If it doesn't persuade voters that something must be done about the jail, they deserve what they get by refusing to vote money to solve it.
Our cover story June 15 amply illustrated the frustration and cost of turning burglars and other thugs loose because the jail has no room to house them. That cover story is worth reading because of one thing Republican Magnus said. He said it is wrong to “reduce the contribution to the jail budget of the cities in this county when they already pay a smaller share of the jail cost than they ‘contribute’ in inmate population.”
This categorically untrue, if you understand jail funding. It’s true that the passage of the new taxes would release the cities from annual contributions to the jail fund. But if a sales tax is passed, roughly 65 percent of the proceeds would come from within the boundaries of Little Rock and 24 percent from North Little Rock, based on our analysis of state revenue figures on the existing one-cent county sales tax. Similarly, Little Rock and North Little Rock property accounts for nearly 75 percent of the money the county receives from its countywide property tax levy. In short, though the county may appropriate jail spending from ITS revenue flow, the vast majority of that money flows from within the cities that produce most of the criminals. It would be fairer to say the cities are subsidizing sheriff’s patrols out in the unincorporated areas of Pulaski County.