Crawford County Judge John Hall and Sheriff Ron Brown took their sales pitch for a new county jail across downtown Van Buren to the city's council meeting Monday night (April 21) before the two men addressed residents concerned about a gun range at the Crawford County Quorum Court meeting shortly after they left the council.
In making the pitch for the new jail to Van Buren city councilors, Hall said the vote to raise sales tax by a total of three-quarters of a cent on May 20 was about "the future of law and order in Crawford County."
"The fact that the court systems, law enforcement, the general public depends upon our ability to incarcerate people who (do) bad things and we have to have a place we can put them in that is certified by the state of Arkansas and (where) we can house those people and keep them away from the rest of the population."
The proposed facility is to be built on land just outside of the Van Buren city limits, along U.S. Highway 64, which Hall has said sits in a convenient location easily accessible by law enforcement across the county. The facility requires county voters to approve the sales tax, which would bump the overall sales tax to 10.25% in Van Buren, among the highest local sales tax rates in the United States.
Where the facility along Main Street in Van Buren was built to house 64 inmates, the new facility is designed to house a minimum of 265 inmates and a maximum of up to 307. The new facility will also house a re-located sheriff's office, a courtroom, 911 call center and other amenities, according to Hall, who said the facility would be built for an estimated $19 million with contingency funds of $2 million available should the project run into unforeseen obstacles.
Brown told the council that problems with the jail dated as far back as 1993, adding that the facility was overcrowded from nearly the time it opened. As time has gone on, the problems have only worsened, with the county now transporting inmates to jails in other counties or releasing inmates on signature bonds if they are deemed non-violent offenders.
Alderman Johnny Ragsdale, who was on the Quorum Court when the current facility was constructed, said the facility was built without raising either millage or sales taxes. But Brown said those days are over.
"You know, we're a growing community and when your population grows, everything else grows," Brown said. "This is no different, in my opinion, than a school or a municipal building or a train depot. When your public grows, everything has to grow with it."
To drive home the point of just how overcrowded the jail is, Brown relayed that he has been placed on probation by the state of Arkansas three different times due to jail overcrowding, with a state panel voting three times to shut down the jail. Each time he has been able to buy more time, but he said it could come to a point if the new sales tax does not pass that he could be facing lawsuits, or worse.
"I'm on probation again until August of this year. The letter (from the state) says they're going to ask me to shut it down. If not, they'll file a complaint with the attorney general and it's basically suing Crawford County. Can it happen? Go ask (former) Sheriff (Mike) Allen. Sheriff Allen was brought before Judge Medlock and Judge Medlock said if you go over 64 beds, I'm going to put you in jail."
Beyond what the judge and sheriff said are immediate needs, Hall also pointed to what he said would be economic benefits to a $20 million building project in the county, claiming it would create up to 200 jobs leading to most money flowing through the local economy.
Elected city officials who spoke offered support of the jail tax proposal, with City Attorney Candice Settle calling the situation with the county's jail population "a crisis in our community."
"It will only worsen and I hope people consider that and realize how serious it is," she said.
Mayor Bob Freeman went further, saying that it was a situation that "won't fix itself."
"We have to address the issue. …Let's bite the bullet and let's move on. I applaud the judge and the sheriff for putting together a plan."
The city council approved a motion introduced by Alderman Donna Parker officially supporting passage of the three-quarter cent sales tax on May 20.
In other business, the council:
• Passed a resolution authorizing the mayor to enter into a contract for $82,200 with CEI Engineering Associates to create a comprehensive parks and recreation plan for the city;
• Passed a resolution authorizing and directing the mayor to advertise for bids for property insurance;
• Passed a resolution that provides $50,000 in funding for the Regional Intermodal Transportation Authority for regional economic development; and
• Passed a resolution accepting a bid from Crawford Construction Company for $3.127 million to construct the new Van Buren Senior Center.
At the Quorum Court meeting, Hall was met by a group of residents who claim that a local gun range is putting their families at risk due to wayward bullets landing on their properties and in some cases, entering their homes.
Resident Brenda Yeakley lives near the THOR Global Defense Group shooting range in rural Crawford County and was seeking an order from the Quorum Court that would regulate the business after she said her niece was shot, though Brown said the state crime lab could not rule that the bullet definitely came from a gun being fired on the range at the time.
Addressing the request Yeakley, Charles Baker, the county's legal counsel, said any ordinance that the county could pass that would regulate such establishments or ban them outright would have to grandfather in THOR since it is an existing business.
"The legislature has done exactly what Justice Demonte said earlier — they've made the law in the state of Arkansas (to where) if you attempt to regulate a gun range, then any ranges already in existence when you pass that regulation are grandfathered in. So there's nothing that this Quorum Court could do with this law currently in affect that would change anything at that particular gun range."
Justice of the Peace Carrie Jernigan, whose law partner represents THOR, said it was a slippery slope should the Quorum Court ever try to regulate a business and instead suggested civil action would be the appropriate remedy should residents making claims against THOR want action taken against the company. It was a suggestion that Baker and Hall agreed with and suggested to the residents.
Many of the residents in attendance voiced their discontent with the inaction of the Quorum Court, with about 45 minutes of discussion taking place on the one topic. Hall instructed Baker to further research the remedies that could be available to the Quorum Court before its next meeting in May.
In other business, the Quorum Court approved an appropriation amendment to the fiscal year 2014 budget.