Ready or not, county and city leaders could soon be making another attempt to sell a 1/4 percent sales tax for the Pulaski County Jail.
After four months of task force meetings, the committee of county residents and politicians is expected to vote on a proposal June 21.
Similar proposals have struck out with county voters twice before in 1997 and 2002.
“I think we’re there,” North Little Rock Mayor Patrick Hays said. “I would support a sales tax of a reasonable amount. I would encourage our folks to support it.”
A 1/4 percent tax would be specifically for expansion and operation of the jail. The $17 million in annual tax revenues would open 898 additional beds by 2010 and pay the staff. Some prevention, intervention and treatment dollars would be included in that budget.
Most agree the tax won’t be an easy sell — especially for North Little Rock residents who already are paying a temporary ballpark tax.
“This is a very expensive proposition,” said Jim Lynch, a Little Rock activist and task force member. “I don’t hear any overwhelming enthusiasm for spending more money for jails.”
Meantime, Little Rock has been talking about standing by a tax proposal of its own for public safety — for everything from more police officers and firefighters to code enforcement and animal services funding.
But after polling city residents, the jail stuck out as a top priority, City Manager Bruce Moore said. Moore and Little Rock Mayor Jim Dailey are ceding city needs for the time being to addressing the jail situation, though a sales tax could help Little Rock indirectly.
Dailey supports a countywide tax, given some hefty stipulations.
“If we go for a county proposal, we’ve got to have understandings on the front end about the county’s role and responsibilities so we don’t end up in the same situation in years to come,” he said. “We’ve got to have something that’s ironclad.”
Villines has said he will be happy to have complete county responsibility for the jail. The county would continue to pledge its current jail budget from county revenues. In turn, cities would be released from the interlocal agreement and annual payments to the county.
That leaves one question.
“The only concern I have is where does this [existing] city money go?” said Scott Miller, who is also a member of the citizens group that prompted the official task force — County Jail Reform Now.
Many city leaders say they would apply those funds — about $2 million a year — back to local public safety.
Whatever the task force recommends, a vote by 10 of the 15 County Quorum Court members would be needed to put a tax on the ballot. Villines favors an August special election. Right now, at least three members of the court, including Justice of the Peace Ann McCaleb, who rallied against the first jail tax proposal for in 1990, are likely no votes.
“The more things change the more they stay the same,” she said.