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LR, Jacksonville still stalled on jail funding

By Emily Walkenhorst

This article was published August 2, 2014 at 3:32 a.m.

On Friday, when the 20-year-old contract to fund the Pulaski County jail expired, three of Pulaski County's five biggest cities had not approved entering into a new agreement with the county to pay for the $25 million facility.

Sherwood and North Little Rock city councils Monday approved entering into a 5-year contract proposed by Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines that would charge the cities 5 percent more next year than what they had been paying and set a new consumer price index factor for subsequent years.

The Maumelle City Council will consider the same contract Monday, which Mayor Mike Watson said he believes will pass.

"I think it's a reasonable offer from the county," Watson said. "I still think the state should pay more for inmates at the Pulaski County jail."

Little Rock and Jacksonville have not moved forward with a new contract, and the cities' mayors have expressed disappointment with the way each city's cost is calculated in Villines' proposal.

The 5 percent and inflation factors are based off the original contract, which based its costs to the cities on the amount they were paying in the early 1990s to operate their own jails before they closed them in favor of taking inmates to the county jail instead.

When divided by the number of inmates each city brings to the jail, those costs aren't consistent among cities, Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola said, noting that Little Rock effectively pays $209 per inmate it brings to the jail versus $58 for Sherwood.

"There are internal inconsistencies, which, unfortunately, based on the way this has been presented, we're not going to be able to resolve," Stodola said.

Since the 1990 agreement that went into effect Aug. 1, 1994, Sherwood has grown by more than 50 percent, slightly surpassing Jacksonville in size. It now brings a similar number of inmates to the jail, but the city pays tens of thousands of dollars less than Jacksonville -- $127,047 to $191,496 -- a point Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher most recently made to the Pulaski County Quorum Court on July 22.

Some justices of peace sympathized with Fletcher and said they would be wary of approving a contract that seemed unfair.

But Villines has noted the amount of time he and mayors have had to discuss a new contract.

"Last year, we said we need to come to an agreement now," he said.

All cities that operate a law enforcement agency in Pulaski County are now subject to a per-day, per-inmate charge for holding prisoners in the county jail if they do not contract with the county for an alternate funding plan. A city is charged $245 for the first day an inmate is processed into the jail, while each day after that costs $44.

Based on county calculations, the daily rate would double the amount the cities collectively pay toward the jail from $2.9 million under contract to about $6 million.

County officials have said the daily rate, passed by emergency ordinance last month, likely won't be enforced until Jan. 1, if necessary, because cities have promised funds for the jail through the end of the year.

Little Rock sent the county its final check for the year -- about $700,000 -- last month, Stodola said.

Only North Little Rock has not paid in full, but Villines said that did not concern him, given the city's approval of the new contract.

Stodola said he is drafting a memo to city directors for background information on the contract. He said the city will go forward with the new contract or subject itself to the daily rate.

"I'm sure we'll have a discussion about what the various alternatives are," he said, adding that there's "no need to rush.

"We will certainly come forward and make a decision in plenty of time to deal with the matter."

Stodola and others have also criticized the state for paying only $28 per inmate per day to county jails across the state, while the actual cost of holding state inmates is much higher in many counties. Officials have argued that the rate effectively causes counties to subsidize the state prison system.

In recent months, county jails have become overcrowded with state inmates. In Pulaski County, the 1,210-bed jail closed its doors to nonviolent, nonfelony offenders for more than 60 days and has dealt with overtime costs for jail deputies coming in when the jail gets over capacity.

The $28 rate was established in 2001, and Watson has said that costs for jails have increased since then.

Stodola has said he plans to lobby the state Legislature to approve a higher reimbursement rate.

In 2014, $28 has the same buying power as $20.81 in 2001, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' consumer price index inflation calculator.

"So there's a bigger issue than just the Pulaski County situation," Watson said. "We need to look at this thing statewide."

Metro on 08/02/2014

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