A Conservative Sheriff in an Election Year. Am I Nuts?
I want you to use your imagination for a moment. What if you had to move into a new home that is three times larger than your current home and you suddenly had to support a new family of eight who moved into the house with you – yet you are receiving the same paycheck you had before this move. There would be higher insurance costs, utilities, food, medical expenses, even more toilet paper. No matter how hard you tried to scrimp and save, you would be faced with a budget crisis, wouldn’t you?
Welcome to the world of the Baxter County Sheriff’s Office and the Detention Center. In 2004, a new detention center was built to service all of the law enforcement agencies in Baxter County (prior to my first term in 2005). This detention center was paid for from the sale of the county-owned hospital. A good move because the detention center was paid for, however, no additional funding was provided to actually run the detention center. Back to our imaginary story, your new, larger house doesn’t have a mortgage (which was true of your old house), but it does have more people living in it and significantly higher operating costs. But wait, you have to maintain it on your original paycheck. Did I mention that several of your new family members have expensive medical conditions and they don’t have insurance? Or that you will soon have to bring in another family and you need more bedrooms?
I am writing this newsletter to give you the facts and background to explain why a conservative Sheriff is proposing a ¼ cent sales tax to fund the detention center operations. The issue will be on the November 2012 ballot and I strongly believe that voters need to be equipped with the facts before they go to the poll. For the many readers of this newsletter who do not live in Baxter County, don’t stop reading here. There is a critical lesson to be learned that can be applied when making funding decisions for governmental agencies in other areas.
Over the past ten or so years, Arkansas counties have typically built their detention centers with a 1% sales tax to build the facility and a ¼ or ½ cents sales tax to operate the new detention center. Two to three years later the new detention center is paid for and the 1% sales tax expires (while the ¼ - ½ cent sales tax remains to fund ongoing operations and prepare for the future growth of the inmate population). As I mentioned, when Baxter County decided to build a new detention center, they elected to go a different route, using funds from the sale of the county-owned hospital to pay off the bond issue. Unfortunately, no provisions were made to fund the operations of the new detention center.
The old detention center held 33 inmates compared to the 104-inmate capacity in the new detention center. The new detention center has an average daily inmate population of 74 (although we’ve housed more than 100 inmates on certain days throughout the past couple of years). Let’s look at what happens to the operating costs when you more than double the population from the old detention center to the new:
- Medical costs that have to be paid by the detention center – did you know that the moment an inmate is booked into the detention center, his/her government provided medical insurance (Medicare, Medicaid or VA benefits) stops? This means the detention center pays for their prescription medicine, any hospital visits, etc. And unlike our imaginary family with known medical conditions, the detention center has no idea who will require expensive medical care and pharmaceutical needs.
- Even though the population has doubled, the number of detention center personnel has not increased in the past six years. Many times one detention center officer, acting as the booking officer, will be responsible for as many as 100 inmates
- All costs have gone up, from insurance, utilities, maintenance to food, prisoner clothing and yes, even toilet paper. But these expenses are associated with the current inmate population. What about future expansion and repairs?
With no additional funding in place and budgets virtually flat, we are experiencing critical shortfalls in every budget line item and the problem worsens each year. In 2010 the detention center budget shortfall was approximately $180,000; in 2011 it was in the red by $137,000. I can’t tell you how many nights I’ve stayed up searching for creative ways to stretch the budget. But it will only stretch so far.
The issue is serious because the law clearly states the detention center shall be funded BEFORE any other county services, not just the Sheriff’s Office. That means the detention center will be funded before roads are paved or graded and before deputies are put on the street or in our schools to protect our families.
If voters approve the ¼ cent sales tax, it will generate approximately $1.46 million. The budget needed to run the detention center properly and safely is approximately $1.2 million. The remaining $200,000 would be put aside into a future building and maintenance fund to be used when the growth in the detention center population requires additions. When this inevitable inmate growth happens, the money will be available without having to go back to the taxpayers.
In my opinion, the taxpayers are faced with three options:
1. Do nothing and start cutting other county services to fund the detention center. This most likely will mean all county services will be cut, including patrol deputies and school resource officers, as well as paving and maintaining roads.
2. Raise property taxes. Although this is not an option I favor, it should be noted that the current millage rate for county operations is set at 8/10 of one mill. The cities receive from 2 to 5 mills; the college receives 2 mills and the library 1 mill. Baxter County receives 8/10 of one mill, the third lowest millage rate in the entire state of Arkansas. But is it fair for only the property owners to share in the expense of the housing inmates?
3. The third option is the ¼ cent sales tax. This approach not only generates the most money with the least impact to any one segment of citizens, it also allows visitors who come to our area (and who many times tax our law enforcement resources) to pay their fair share.
So what does ¼ cent really mean? If you take your children or grandchildren to McDonald's and buy a happy meal for $4, it will cost you one penny. If you and your spouse go out to eat and spend $20, it will cost you a nickel. If you spend $100 at the hardware or grocery store, it will cost you 25 cents. If I saw you walking out of a grocery store and we stopped briefly to speak and I asked if you had a quarter, I bet 95% of the people reading this newsletter would reach into their pocket or purse and give me a quarter without even asking why I wanted it or how I was going to spend it. That is essentially what I am doing, asking for that quarter to help Baxter County maintain the quality of life of which we have become accustom.
By the way, the decision to put this initiative on the General Election Ballot and not call for a special election was made for two main reasons -- 1) a special election is expensive to conduct and historically Baxter County has very few people who turn out to vote in a special election, 2) a much larger percentage of people vote in a November General Election (especially a Presidential election year) and we believe that the magnitude of this decision that will have a lasting impact on our community should be decided by the largest number of Baxter County voters.
At the Baxter County Sheriff’s Office, I believe that a well-informed public is a safer public. Likewise, I believe it is our responsibility to equip our voters with all of the facts as they ponder this voting decision.
I have recorded a 15-minute video in order to give you as many facts as possible to help you in your voting decision. It is also a useful way to share the facts with friends and family. Please click on www.baxtercountysheriff.com and then click on ‘Click here to view the ¼ cent Sales Tax video’ which is found on the home page.
I am not going to ask you to vote for this tax. All I ask is that you study the issue. Look at the problems and potential looming crisis that is facing the Sheriff’s Office and think about our quality of life we all enjoy, think about the safety and security we all have here and when you step into the voting booth on November 6, cast an educated and informed vote on this ¼ cent jail tax, whether that is a yes or a no. I will respect the will of the voters and no matter what, I promise I will continue to fight to preserve the safety and security we all enjoy.
Sheriff John Montgomery