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Pulaski County Hopes for Compromise with Cities on Jail Funding, Sets Stage for "Safety Net" Ordinance

The Pulaski County Quorum Court, placing a daily rate ordinance for inmate stays at the county jail on its agenda for July 22. County officials say its a safety net to make sure the jail has appropriate funding, even as the county's five largest cities' compromise talks continue.
LITTLE ROCK, AR - "We're not trying to grab more money, if we were we would just pass the ordinance and the heck with it," said Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines.

The fate of funding for the county jail, at this point, will come down to compromise.

"I expect when it's all said and done that everybody will get on board," said Sheriff Doc Holladay.

Pulaski County's five largest cities, along with county officials, are working to address the funding issue in a way everyone can live with financially.

"I think we're all trying to cooperatively to come to an agreement," said Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola.

But no one has signed on the dotted line, yet.

"I'll be talking with other mayors and discussing those issues," Stodola said. "Hopefully we'll be in agreement and come up with language to be incorporated into agreement."

The current contract was signed 20 years ago and expires August 1, 2014. The current contract didn't allow the county flexibility with the rate, according to Villines, to account for increases in costs over the years.

The new contract he presented would have a five percent increase in the first year and a flat three percent increase each year after. Villines had wanted a 10-year contract term as well.

Stodola didn't identify specific sticking points, but said questions regarding the initial contract that have largely been ironed out. Stodola said those included reducing the three percent annual increase to a Consumer Price Index increase to account for inflation, up to a cap of 3 percent. Compromises discussed included reducing the contract from 10 years to five, though Stodola would have preferred an even shorter duration.

"We will have a change in leadership with the county judge coming up, and I've discussed the issue with the two candidates for judge," Stodola said. "They had expressed they'd like to have a hand in the development of that plan in the future. But apparently the county judge currently and the sheriff don't agree with that necessarily and would like a longer term agreement."

According to Villines, the longer term is to ensure stability for the county. While new leadership would be in place, Villines said, they likely wouldn't have a great deal of working knowledge of the issue in practice.

On Tuesday night, the Pulaski County Quorum court placed an inmate per diem ordinance on its agenda for July 22, 2014. The ordinance outlines that if an agreement isn't in place, now or in the future, the county will charge the city(s) in question a daily rate for holding their inmates.

"We just want to ensure the public we have adequate funding for 1,210 beds," Villines said. "This is a type of safety net that no matter what personalities are in office there will either be an agreement between the county and cities or a daily rate will be charged. If there is an agreement the ordinance never has to kick in."

According to both Villines and Holladay, the county doesn't desire to make the "daily pay to stay" ordinance the policy.

"We really do hope to come to an agreement" Villines said. "But not making a decision is making a decision. The time for a decision is now."

The cities are working on the language for compromises to the county's initial proposal, and Stodola voiced disappointment regarding the pressure he feels the ordinance places on cities.

"It is a bit of a sword hanging over our head, I think it could be categorized that way," he said. "I  just don't understand why that needs to be hanging over the cities as an imperative that will happen if we don't have an agreement by end of August."

Villines and Holladay said they're confident a compromise will come, if only due to projections that the per diem would cost cities skyrocketing rates. They estimate costs increases as much or more than half a million dollars for Little Rock, compared to an increase of about $88,000 through the agreement.

According to the county's numbers Little Rock pays $1.76 million through the inter-local agreement. The new proposed rate would bring the cost to $1.85 million. The daily rate, the county projects, would run Little Rock $2.9 million.

"Around $85,000 is a lot of money," Villines said. "But when you're talking about a city budget of more than $150 million, give me a break."

According to Mayor Stodola, he sees the city contributing $2.2 million to the county jail, through district court fees it is also required to designate to the jail. According to Villines, the numbers in question solely deal with the inter-local agreement and added the court fee contribution is mandated by the state legislature.

North Little Rock would face a proposed rate of $797,752 up from $759,764 under the current proposal. It's daily rate would jump to over $1.9 million. Jacksonville currently pays $191,496 and would pay a projected $201,070 under the new proposal. It's daily rate would increase to $533,431 under the per diem.

Maumelle's current $48,807 rate would increase to $51,247 under the new agreement, but it would climb to $97,801 per diem. Sherwood currently pays $127,047 and would face $133,409 in the revised contract. A per diem rate would place it at $766,165.

"That's a pretty good deal, and hopefully they'll see it that way," Villines said. "Common sense would tell them you want a five percent increase on what you're paying now instead of a 50 percent increase or more on what you're paying now."

That's based on a $244 first day figure and  roughly $44 subsequent day figure for jail stays, per day per inmate, as the county's estimated costs to house an inmate.

"It's not like checking into a hotel. You've got to do medical review, criminal background on that first day," Villines said. "Several hours more of a process they have to go through to ensure the safety of people working there, and you have 1,200 people in confined spaced need to know what you're dealing with."

Stodola believes there are questions concerning the county's ability to charge that daily rate and if the amount for first-day costs is accurate.

"If that first day figure is inaccurate, the way they've calculated the daily rate, it would be less expensive for the city of Little Rock to pay the daily rate than it would be to pay that," Stodola said. "The only way they get to those dollars and cents is if the $244 first day rate is accurate and reasonable."

Both sides said they hoped to reach a compromise to move forward with the county-cities contract, instead of facing questions of a daily rate. Stodola said he hoped to see the state legislature appropriate more funding for counties holding state inmates, which are currently reimbursed at about half the rate of estimated costs.

"We're subsidizing the state," he said. "With a state surplus and the importance of public safety, hopefully in the next legislative session we will see the state do the right thing and contribute more. That would possibly allow for the city rates to be re-negotiated."

"The mayor seems to believe that he could get more from the state, God bless him," Villines said. "It hasn't happened, and I don't think we ought to wait for somebody else may or may not do to take care of our business. The county and the cities have worked together through issues for years. I'm sure will work through this as well."

According to Stodola, the City of Little Rock is working to draft language to include in the agreement, which he will present to the mayors of the other four cities. He didn't have a definite timeline for when the compromise might come but said he believed more definite information would be available next week.
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