Monday, November 24, 2008

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part XI): Newton County will get a new jail

The Nov. 13, 2008 issue of the Newton County Times reports election results, including news that the 1/2 cent sales tax to finance construction of a new jail was narrowly approved, 2,032 to 1,884. This tax will expire once the facility is built, and the proposal limited the amount of construction funding to $2.7 million. The additional 1/2 cent sales tax that would have financed the maintenance and operation of the jail failed, 1,890 votes in favor, 1,979 against. It appears that a special election may be held to reconsider this second tax.

Meanwile, the current jail, which is more than a century old, may be closed at the beginning of 2009 because of nine major deficiencies that the state regulatory authorities have identified. The jail is "liable to lawsuits" as long as it remains open with these deficiencies. I have written about it here, here (with photos!) and here.

The county is eligible for a 35% matching grant, though the newspaper does not report the source of that grant. I am guessing it may be a U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Public Safety grant.

The Committee for a Safer Newton County, which held public meetings about the need for a jail and which placed ads in support of the new tax, argued that the sales tax is better for residents than raising property taxes because out-of-county visitors will contribute to the former. The Committee also argued that building a new jail is less expensive over time than using a neighboring facility, which costs the country $35 to $55/day, in addition to manpower and fuel costs to transport prisoners.

Once the jail is built, it will have 32 beds, and the county will be eligible to house state prisoners, as well as to charge neighboring counties to house their detainees. It can also charge federal agencies such as the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service to accommodate their detainees. These agencies currently pay $70 per bed, per day to larger jails in the state, whether or not the bed is occupied.

I'm starting to think that the rural prison-building boom has come to Newton County . . . well, not quite, I hope!

I don't spend much time in Newton County any longer, so I was surprised to learn that 9% is the current sales tax paid in the county, with the state collecting 6%, the city of Jasper taking 2%, and the county getting the remaining 1%. ( I am quoting the paper here, but presumably the 2% that goes to the city of Jasper, population 498, is only assessed on purchases in Jasper). The county's 1% is split among the county general fund (35%), the road fund (35%), and the "road matching fund" (35%). I have no idea what the distinction between these two road funds is, but that division certainly conveys a sense of how important roads are to the county's residents. My guess is that only about 20% of county residents live on a paved road, and all of those paved roads are state rather than county roads.

In other county news, there is a run-off in the four-way race for County Judge. Indeed, as of the date of this paper, the incumbent himself was in a regional hospital's coronary care unit in "critical" condition. I guess failure to win election outright was a big stressor for him. There is also the fact that the county (and presumably he as its chief executive) is under investigation for mis-use of federal grant funds. (See an earlier post here).

In other election news, Newton County voters supported John McCain (2,593) over Barack Obama (1,236). The only township to carry Obama was Murray Township, home mostly to newcomers and "hippies." (I wrote a bit about it here). The vote there was 33 for Obama to 5 for McCain.

The first-term U.S. Senator Mark Pryor defeated his only opponent, a Green Party candidate, 2,631 to 950. That tally would suggest some local disgruntlement with Pryor, a Democrat (with whom I went to law school at the University of Arkansas).

On the state initiative to restrict adoption to married couples and to ban those who co-habit from adoption -- a matter that has gotten some attention nationally because it was targeted at preventing LGBT folks from adopting or being foster parents-- Newton County residents supported the ban, 2,378 for and 1,379 against. The vote in Murray: 7 in favor; 28 against.

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