This year's race for Pulaski County judge has been one of the liveliest in recent memory, with incumbent Floyd “Buddy” Villines facing a well-funded campaign to unseat him waged by former Republican state legislator Phil Wyrick. Both candidates made $50,000-plus ad buys in the weeks leading up to the election, which means that you probably will have seen at least one of their commercials long before you read this.
Wyrick served one term in the Arkansas State Senate, and three terms in the House of Representatives before being appointed by Gov. Mike Huckabee as the director of the Arkansas State Livestock and Poultry Commission. He runs a Saline County bathroom fixture company and owns a cattle ranch near Mabelvale.
Buddy Villines has been Pulaski County judge for 18 years. He has been nationally recognized for his work on local civic projects, including the Big Dam Bridge, the Little Rock trolley system, and the pedestrian-friendly Junction Bridge. He has also been instrumental in moving county government toward “green” environmental policies, issuing an executive order requiring all county-owned vehicles to be replaced with hybrids as new cars were purchased, and co-founding the Arkansas chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council.
The race between Wyrick and Villines has boiled down to two main issues (three, if you count the candidates' back and forth sniping over disgraced former county comptroller Ron Quillin, who is currently in prison for embezzling $42,000 in county funds): funding and maintenance of the county jail, and who would be best at protecting the Lake Maumelle watershed, which supplies the majority of the drinking water for citizens in Central Arkansas.
The watershed issue has been the thrust of Wyrick's campaign; he's accused Villines of being too generous to developers who want to build expensive homes near the shore of the lake. Wyrick supports the Lake Maumelle Watershed Management Plan, which was commissioned though California-based engineering and consulting firm Tetra Tech by Central Arkansas Water, area residents and developers.
“Villines has compromised [Lake Maumelle] in lieu of development —concentrated development,” Wyrick said. “I firmly believe in 50 years, another generation will judge us; whether we made the right decision and showed wisdom, or whether we made the wrong decision on exhibited greed and self-interest. … The water issue is so important, not just for public safety or public health. It is a tool for economic development. I will protect the water.”
Villines has shot back that Wyrick talks about protecting the watershed, but he's short on specifics about how he'll do it. The judge said that the Watershed Management plan was developed without requesting input or guidance from any member of county government, and no thought was given as to how to implement the plan, both legally and financially. Villines said he doesn't support the plan because it has no basis in the laws of Arkansas, and because it will be easier to reach the same goal – protection of the water supply – through a strong subdivision ordinance that “incorporates the science of the plan.”
“Once that's passed,” Villines said, “we can assure folks that the watershed will be protected immediately. Then we can go to the second step, which is to develop the land use plan, which you have to have before you do zoning. He [Wyrick] doesn't understand that. He doesn't understand the laws of Arkansas. He's never worked in zoning or subdivisions. If he were to get elected, that would be a real mess, because he doesn't understand how this has to be done.”
Funding the Pulaski County jail has been his biggest challenge, Villines said. Because of the gang and drug wars of the 1990s, Villines said, the jail was filled to capacity virtually from the moment it opened, which put a massive burden on county finances. In a period of only a few years, he said, the county budget swelled from $5 million to well over $20 million. He helped put three jail-funding tax initiatives before the voters to avoid cutting back on county services, but all failed.
“There's not a government in this country that could have done what we did,” he said. “But all along I was saying we can't keep doing this. We're going to hit a wall, and we did in 2005. In 2005, we had to cut back all county government by 15 percent. That caused us to have to release prisoners early and really cut back on everything. … From a management standpoint, people say: ‘Well, it was your fault.' I don't think people understand. They think a county judge is like a strong mayor. There are multiple, multiple departments of county government that I have no authority over their budgets. You look at the general fund, and I have very small authority over all these other elected officials and departments.”
Villines said he supports a new plan by Pulaski County Sheriff Charles “Doc” Holladay to build a new medium-security facility that would provide an additional 240 beds, and says he can build the addition without raising taxes. An additional 240 beds would bring the jail back to the 1,100 inmate capacity it had prior to budget cutting in 2005.
Though he would like to see the new jail addition constructed, Villines said that unlike Wyrick, he doesn't believe Pulaski County can “build its' way out of” the jail shortage.
“We've taken a lot of prisoners, but we're not winning the war,” Villines said. “It's just getting worse. Nobody comes to a community just because they've got a big jail. In fact, I would argue that that's one of the reasons people might not want to be there. So, we've got to have more crime prevention. We've got to have help from the state and federal government on drug and alcohol rehabilitation. If you look at the people who are committing crimes, they're doing it basically to feed their habits or their addictions. We've got to change that.”
Wyrick said that like many Pulaski County residents, he is frustrated with “the inability of this administration to provide jail space to lock up the criminals.” Wyrick said that because of the lack of jail space, law enforcement has been reduced to running a “catch and release” system for all but the most violent criminals.
“In 1992, Villines was elected to county judge,” Wyrick said. “He had a surplus of $12 million dollars. In 2003, Villines cut the budget across the board by 20 percent, eliminating 160 beds and also eliminating 23 deputies and jailers. [In] 2005, Villines cut the budget again, including the jail budget. He cut 245 beds out of the county jail. We are in a situation where we cannot control crime … non-violent crime is soaring in Pulaski County. If we do not have jail space and a commitment, we cannot control the growing crime issue.” Wyrick said that he would help pay for additional jail space by going through the budget and finding ways to save the county money on inmate expenses, such as health care: He'd like to see prisoners who are veterans taken to the Little Rock VA hospital for care, and would like to bill insurance providers of those inmates who have private coverage. He also said that he would use his experience in the legislature to lobby for a raise in funds per inmate held for the state from $23 to $40 a day.
Wyrick said the problems with the jail have become an economic development issue for Central Arkansas. Recently, he said, a group of realtors went before Villines and the Quorum Court to express their frustration.
“In my opinion, Buddy Villines was pretty condescending, and told them that they should have voted for the sales tax, which he proposed three times.” Wyrick said. “Buddy Villines has not instilled confidence and accountability in county government. It's hard for those people to support a tax when they know it's not being spent correctly.”