Franklin County vote on jail taxes to begin
Franklin County officials face the task of persuading voters to approve two new taxes, and officials say if the county can’t build and operate a new jail, the alternative could bankrupt the county.
“People are sick of taxes,” Sheriff Anthony Boen said. “But I hope people realize it’s a necessity.”
Early voting begins Tuesday in Franklin County’s special Aug. 8 election. On the ballot are two proposed sales taxes totaling 0.5 percent to build and operate a new county jail.
Residents can vote early from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Aug. 7 at the courthouses at Ozark and Charleston, according to the county clerk’s office. The courthouses are closed on weekends.
Voters will be asked to decide on a 0.375 percent sales tax to pay off capital improvement bonds that would be sold to raise up to $9 million to build a 92-person-capacity jail and sheriff’s office on county-owned land on Airport Road near Interstate 40 in north Ozark.
The bonds, authorized under Amendment 62 of the Arkansas Constitution, would be sold to investors who would profit from the interest earned over time on the bonds. The county would benefit by using the money from the sale of the bonds to pay for building the jail.
The estimated $648,000 the sales tax would generate each year would be used to pay off the bonds and interest over about 17 years. Once the bonds are paid off, the tax would expire.
Voters also will be asked to pass a 0.125 percent sales tax that would generate an estimated $216,000 a year. That tax would be permanent.
The money from that tax would be used to pay for operating the larger jail, along with the $675,000 the county already spends on jail operation.
If approved, collection of the taxes would begin Jan. 1.
To convince voters of the need, Boen has conducted tours of the county’s undersized and deteriorating
44-year-old jail that has been described as a safety hazard to prisoners and jail staff members. He said one woman on a tour fled from the jail in tears after seeing the women’s section that was built for six inmates but held 15 on the day she was there.
Boen and County Judge Rickey Bowman have spoken to civic groups, at chambers of commerce and senior-citizen centers, answering questions and distributing an informational brochure about the jail project.
The jail has been in violation of state standards for years, and the 5th Judicial Circuit’s Criminal Detention Facilities Review Committee could order the county to close the lockup if it doesn’t take steps to resolve the problems.
“People need to understand that we will be in a fine pickle if we don’t get this taken care of,” Bowman said.
The current county jail could revert to being a lockup that can hold prisoners for only 24 hours before they would have to be transferred to a jail in another county. Boen said jails in all of the surrounding counties are full.
Officials have said contracting with another county or counties to hold Franklin County’s prisoners could cost the county $700,000 to $1 million a year. That cost doesn’t include transporting prisoners to and from court and the medical expenses the county would have to pay for its prisoners.
Bowman said the county could not handle the expense.
City police departments in the county, among them Ozark and Charleston, would be in the same situation. They no longer would have the county jail to hold their prisoners and would have to find jail space in other counties.
Opponents say passage of the taxes would make the county’s sales tax rate the highest in the area, raising the sales tax rate in Ozark to 10.5 percent. Some also oppose paying higher taxes to take care of prisoners who are not contributing members of the community.
With the current jail, there is not enough room to hold all those who need to be in jail, Boen said, meaning he has to decide who to hold and who to let loose.