The Arkansas Legislative Council on Friday authorized three state agencies to use about $65 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds, ranging from $500,000 for the Arkansas State Police to purchase license plate readers to track down narcotics traffickers and other suspected criminals to $17 million for the state to distribute in grants to crime-victims organizations in Arkansas to help offset the loss of federal funds.
After several lawmakers said they are worried about possible abuse of the license plate readers, the Legislative Council voted to require the Arkansas State Police to report quarterly to the council on the number of arrests made as a result of the license plate readers.
State Department of Public Safety Director Col. Mike Hagar said in a letter dated Aug. 31 to state Department of Finance and Administration Secretary Jim Hudson that the license plate readers will assist law enforcement in responding to AMBER Alerts, Morgan Nick Alerts and Silver Alerts.
"They will help identify stolen vehicles and vehicle theft rings," he wrote. "They will also assist in tracking and locating wanted suspects and sex offenders as well as persons suspected of narcotics trafficking."
Hagar said the license plate readers will not be used to write speeding tickets.
Arkansas State Police Lt. Dennis Overton told state lawmakers the information received from license plate readers will be retained for no longer than 150 days. That information could be retained longer in an ongoing investigation, he said.
He said the license plate readers will initially be placed at the major entrances in and out of the state such as Interstates 30, 40, 49 and 55 and Arkansas 419 and at some locations in Central Arkansas.
"What many of us don't realize is that many municipalities around the state are currently using these systems inside their cities and counties and having great success with locating people who are sex offenders near schools, near parks, [and] retail theft vehicles that come in from other states, walk into a Dollar General and take all of the medication out of a certain aisle and drive out with it," Overton said. "Those type of things are what we need here in Arkansas to be able to use these readers for, but never in any situation would they be used for writing tickets or issuing citations."
Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould, said state police officers maintain that the license plate readers will help with crime fighting, "but we could be much more efficient in crime fighting too if we just dispensed with the warrant requirement, if we just dispensed with the Fourth Amendment altogether, but we don't do that."
"There have to be appropriate checks and balances," he said. "There have to be appropriate safeguards put in place when you have this type of surveillance capability, and what I hear you saying today is that you don't ... at least not in writing. You are just here today to give us your word you won't abuse it, and I appreciate that."
Hagar said, "We are certainly open to whatever safeguards this committee or the legislative body would like to put in place.
"It is difficult for us right now for us to speak intelligently on what safeguards are in place because we currently do not have policy," he said. "We don't [currently] deploy this tool."
Hagar said, "We would ... absolutely be open to members of this body having input on that [policy] or reporting back to show what we have have done, what we have put in place."
The state Department of Finance and Administration requested $17 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds for grants for the Victims of Crime Act program.
Grant awards will be made for the period from Oct. 1, 2023, through Sept. 30, 2024, and will be limited to a maximum of $300,000, the finance department said. The department said a total of 118 applications have been received for the grants.
On Aug. 30, the Children's Advocacy Centers of Arkansas announced that Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders approved $17 million in American Rescue Plan funds for crime victims organizations to offset the loss of federal Victims of Crime Act funds.
The group said decreased revenue from federal criminal fines and fees have created a sustainability and cash-flow issue with federal Victims of Crime Act grants.
The loss of Victims of Crime Act funding would have a detrimental impact on child advocacy centers across the state, with up to 30%-50% of child advocacy centers' operational budgets funded through the federal Victims of Crime Act, the Children's Advocacy Centers of Arkansas said.
In addition to the Children's Advocacy Centers of Arkansas, the Arkansas Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the Arkansas Coalition Against Sexual Assault, the Ozark Rape Crisis Center, Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children, and numerous other crime victim-serving organizations would benefit from this one-time funding, according to the Children's Advocacy Centers of Arkansas.
On Friday, the Legislative Council also authorized the other following uses of federal American Rescue Plan funds:
The Department of Public Safety-Division of Arkansas State Police's request for $14 million to update its Arkansas Wireless Information Network equipment.
The Department of Public Safety-Division of Commission on Law Enforcement Standards and Training's request for $11.9 million to upgrade the Camden campus. The last facility update was in 1969, Hagar said.
The Department of Public Safety-Division of Arkansas State Police's request for $9.5 million to build training barracks at the Camp Robinson Training Center.
The Department of Public Safety-Division of Commission on Law Enforcement Standards and Training's request for $9.4 million to upgrade the Northwest Arkansas campus. The last facility update was in 2002, Hagar said.
The state Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism Office of Outdoor Recreation's request for $1.589 million to support the development of a trail connecting the Arkansas River lock and dam to Merritt Park and from Merritt Park to the Dardanelle Primary School in Dardanelle.
The project will connect key recreational areas via the trail that will allow a safe passage for residents to travel to parks, the department said. Funding will be provided as a project-specific grant from the department's Office of Outdoor Recreation, the department said.
Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, said, "With our federal funds, whether it be the CARES Act or the ARPA funds, we as a body have always tried to make sure that these funds are distributed in a way that is fair and open to everybody across the state, so I think it is important and prudent that you have a program that is laid out very specifically, [that] this is the pot of money that we are going to use, and we are going to use for this purpose and you can apply for it."
The Department of Public Safety-Division of Arkansas State Police's request for $750,000 for security upgrades for necessary compatibility to the security system.
The Department of Public Safety-Arkansas Crime Information Center's request for $250,000 to upgrade the message switch platform and hosting services for the mainframe system that allows all Arkansas law enforcement officers to perform National Crime Information Center and Arkansas Crime Information Center checks.
In March of 2021, President Joe Biden signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act that is designed to help the United States recover from the economic and health effects of the covid-19 pandemic.
The $65 million in federal American Rescue Plan spending authority by the Legislative Council will be financed from Arkansas' American Rescue Plan state fiscal recovery funds, state Department of Finance and Administration spokesperson Scott Hardin said Friday.
Arkansas was awarded $1.57 billion in American Rescue Plan state fiscal recovery funds, and the unallocated balance will decline to $361 million with the Legislative Council's approval Friday of about $65 million in requests, he said.
The Legislative Council also approved the state Department of Human Services' request for $5 million in restricted reserve funds and the Department of Public Safety-Division of Arkansas Police's request for $3.2 million in restricted reserve funds.
Department of Human Services Secretary Kristi Putnam said in a letter dated Thursday to Hudson that she is requesting $5 million from the restricted reserve fund to pay for necessary storm damage repairs at the Arkansas State Hospital.
Some units at the hospital are currently inhabitable because of storm damage, she said, and the hospital is the only state-operated acute psychiatric inpatient hospital in Arkansas.
"These repairs will restore some capacity for provision of psychiatric services to promote recovery in a secured environment," Putnam wrote in her letter.
While repairs are covered by insurance, the department must pay for all repairs upfront and then be reimbursed by the insurance carrier, she said.
"The projected timeline for [completion] of all repairs is 18-24 months," Putnam said. "To the extent DHS is reimbursed, DHS will, upon receipt of reimbursement, deposit the proceeds into this newly created cash account and said insurance proceeds will be subject to reclaim at the close of each fiscal year for the duration of the ASH storm repair projects, with the intent that the reclaimed funds will be returned to the EBD or Contingency Set-Aside" in the restricted reserve fund, she said.
Karen Perry, chief fiscal officer for the Department of Public Safety, said in a letter dated Aug. 30 to Hudson the $3.2 million in restricted reserve funds requested by the Division of State Police will allow the division to purchase motor vehicles.
With the Legislative Council's approval of these two requests for restricted reserve funds, the balance in the restricted reserve fund will decline to $1.47 billion, Hardin said Friday.