Crawford County Judge John Hall and Sheriff Ron Brown spoke to a decidedly friendly crowd Tuesday (April 29) as the two men brought made yet another pitch to county voters for a new sales tax, a pitch that comes less than a week before citizens can begin early voting.
The meeting, held at the county's emergency management headquarters in Van Buren, was hosted by the Van Buren Chamber of Commerce, a group that has endorsed the plan.
"This Spring, at our board (of directors) meeting, we did and we voted to support the jail initiative," said Van Buren Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jackie Krutsch.
She said while the chamber board voted to support the plan to fund and build a new $20 million jail — only one board member did not vote in favor of the endorsement — support from chamber members has not been as overwhelmingly supportive of the planned tax. The jail funding plan would tack a half-cent sales tax on purchases made in the county during the next 10 years to build the jail, while an additional quarter-cent sales tax would be in place permanently to fund law enforcement operations for the county, including jail operations.
"You know, mixed reactions. Business never likes taxes, but yet we've had a lot of businesses saying they've been hurt by crime. I've had several say (it is) more than hot checks, but air conditioners units ripped off their building and things like that and knowing that those individuals ether weren't prosecuted because it was a moot point or they were and were never incarcerated."
Krutsch was referring to what Brown has spoken of repeatedly in making his pitch for the new jail — he simply does not have the room to house offenders, leaving him to release individuals who have been arrested on signature bonds.
Brown said since he has no space to house inmates and the county is not always expending more money to transport inmates to other county jails, he is often times pushing criminals back out onto the streets to re-offend.
In literature Brown and Hall have been distributing as part of their campaign for the tax, Uniontown resident Rickey Jones explained an experience he allegedly had that illustrated Brown's point.
"While going on a hunting trip to my wife's grandparents house, we noticed the house and some storage buildings had been broken into. We set up surveillance the next morning and caught the thieves in the act," he is quoted as saying. "While waiting on more officers to arrive, the ring leader said, 'I'm not too worried because I won't stay in jail because they are overcrowded.' This seems to be a scary problem knowing these people are committing crimes and know they won't get the punishment they deserve due to overcrowding."
The sheriff said because he has had to let more than 2,000 individuals out on signature bonds last year to likely re-offend with no worry of jail time, he was "the biggest person undermining the whole judicial system in Crawford County. I'm chopping away at it because I'm letting people go because I swore to uphold the (Arkansas) constitution and overcrowding is a constitutional violation."
The group appeared to be warm to the idea of a new tax to fund the jail, leading Hall to implore the individuals to get their friends to the polls starting Monday (May 5), when early voting opens at the Crawford County Emergency Management Headquarters. He said voting for the two sales tax questions would not only help construct the new jail, but would drive economic development in the county during the construction phase and later, as he claimed more businesses would choose to develop around the jail site at 4301 Highway 64 just outside Van Buren.
"Sacrifice right now, vote for the half-cent sales tax, vote for the quarter-cent operations and maintenance, keep all your money at home."
Van Buren resident Richard Jiminez said he remembered three other attempts to pass a sales tax for the jail in the early to mid-2000s and he said the need now was greater than before, which is why he would vote for the tax and encourage his friends to do the same.
"I'm here again because I see that's it's necessary," he said. "Crime is not decreasing, it's increasing — certainly in our community. And public safety is most important, as important as anything else in our lives. That's what we ask the sheriff to do, is protect us and how's he doing it? By such things as this here — seeing that we have a jail or detention center to hold those who can't abide by the law."
If passed, the new jail would house 265 beds, with infrastructure for up to 400. The new facility would also house all divisions of the Crawford County Sheriff's Department, as well as an arraignment courtroom and the county's 911 dispatch center.
Early voting for the sales tax questions, partisan primary elections and judicial elections begins Monday (May 5) and will take place at the Crawford County Emergency Management Headquarters in Van Buren. May 20 is the scheduled election date, with voters able to vote at their designated precinct locations.