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Lonoke County votes on tax today

Sales levy soughtfor sheriff’s office by Teresa Moss | June 8, 2021 at 3:59 a.m.
Supporters of a candidate cavort across the street from a polling place in Little Rock's Hillcrest neighborhood Tuesday afternoon, March 3, 2020. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/John Sykes Jr.)

Lonoke County voters will decide on a 0.5% sales and use tax today that officials say is needed to continue funding the sheriff's office and county jail.

County Judge Doug Erwin said that if approved, the tax will generate about $4 million annually for the sheriff's office, which typically spends about $5.5 million out of the county's general fund.

"We wouldn't be asking the citizens at all if we felt like there was any other way to generate these resources," Erwin said.

Early voting started June 1, and about 497 people had voted by Monday, according to Dawn Porterfield, the Lonoke County clerk.

Erwin said Monday that a half-percent sales tax was passed more than a decade ago to build a 132-bed jail -- double the size of the one it replaced.

"They didn't appropriate any operational funds to maintain it," he said. "They have been taking reserves out of the county general to make up for the shortfall for the maintenance. County general has suffered from it because of that."

Funds from the tax, which would be added to a 1% sales tax already in place in the county, will be strictly for the sheriff's office, Erwin said.

Erwin said there is a likelihood the sheriff's office will have to cut some existing services if the tax is not passed.

Lonoke County Sheriff John Staley said about 61% of the county's budget is used to fund the office because there isn't a separate revenue source. The tax would help create that source.

"This isn't a budget problem. This isn't waste," Staley said. "When we cut last year, we had to cut our website of all things. What do you cut? Services? When people call 911, we have to respond. They need us."

The sheriff's office services about 74,000 citizens and employees via about 15 patrol deputies split between four shifts. Staley said each shift staffs about four deputies spread throughout the county.

Starting pay for deputies is $12.40 until certified. Once certified, the pay is $13.31 with the possibility of an annual 3% raise. He says the salaries are about $27,000 to $28,000.

"These guys strap on a gun when you call 911 because something spooky is happening outside," Staley said. "They are the ones who show up. My guy is likely to show up by himself."

It is nearly impossible to retain deputies when they can get another job offer with better pay, he said.

Jailers start at about $11, Staley said.

"We are watching grown men who are rapists and murderers," Staley said. "I can't get applications. In any profession, minimum wage is not a career. It is for a college student."

Technology is behind for the jail and sheriff's office, Staley said. He said the department's radio equipment dates to 2006.

"Who is using a cellphone from 2006?" Staley said.

There are other costs, such as vehicles and recovery programs, that could help keep inmates out of jail in the future.

Staley admitted he doesn't like asking for a tax but believes it is needed for the future of the county.

"I am doing this for the next sheriff," he said. "It is about my kids. It is about your kids."

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