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JPs vote to increase inmate housing rates

County to charge $53 per inmate per day starting Jan. 1 by Caitlan Butler | November 21, 2021 at 12:00 a.m.
Union County Sheriff Ricky Roberts, facing away, speaks to Justices of the Peace about a proposal to increase the rate municipalities pay to house inmates at the county jail during a Quorum Court meeting on Thursday, Nov. 18. The proposal passed unanimously among present JPs. (Caitlan Butler/News-Times)

A proposal to raise the rate cities in Union County pay to house inmates at the Union County Detention Center passed unanimously during a meeting of the Quorum Court on Thursday.

The proposal was submitted by the body's Jail Committee after consultation with Union County Sheriff Ricky Roberts.

Currently, municipalities in the county pay $40 per inmate per day, except for the City of El Dorado, which pays a yearly rate of $175,000, or $14,583.34 per month.

At the $40 per inmate per day rate other cities pay, El Dorado's monthly contribution covers the cost of housing approximately 12 inmates in a 30-day month.

According to the Union County Jail roster, on Saturday, 172 people were incarcerated at the county jail. The jail roster doesn't detail local arresting agencies. Fourteen inmates were being held for the U.S. Marshals, five for another law enforcement agency not specified and two were awaiting extradition to another state. There were also nine Act 309 inmates, who are completing prison sentences in the jail.

Roberts said on Thursday that an additional 40-plus inmates are awaiting transfer to an Arkansas Department of Corrections facility.

"We have been looking at this for some time and we have a lot of data to back this recommendation up," Carolyn Jones, District 5 Justice of the Peace and chair of the jail committee, said on Thursday. "We put a lot of thought into this and due to the cost of everything, this is the rate we're recommending: $53 a day. ... This is the rate we think we have to go to to run the jail."

Jones noted that a three-year jail rate contract with the City of El Dorado, which was signed in June 2019, will expire next June.

El Dorado's contract

In addition to its annual payments of $175,000 to the county, the City of El Dorado also reduced the jail's water and sewer rate by 10% and eliminated a daily lift station fee of $25.

The 2019 contract came after weeks of confusion and disagreement. The deal that was ultimately agreed to was initially rejected by JPs after the El Dorado City Council preempted the Quorum Court in holding a vote on it.

According to previous News-Times reporting, when 2019 discussions about increasing the jail rate began, the city first offered to pay a flat yearly rate of $162,000, or $13,500 per month, for 10 years; but since the sheriff isn't authorized to enter into contracts that extend past his term in office, the offer was rejected.

The county countered the city's proposal with an offer for a yearly flat rate of $200,000, or about $16,667 per month, for three years.

The city then proposed to pay $175,000 per year, plus $600,000 for jail upgrades and reductions in the daily fee and water and sewer rates.

By the start of 2019, all other municipalities in the county besides El Dorado were paying $40 per inmate per day.

Roberts noted in March 2019, that in 2018, El Dorado paid $162,000 for inmate costs for the year, but if they'd been charged $40 per inmate per day like the rest of the county's cities, they would have owed $333,980.

Roberts said on Thursday that again, the actual number of inmates arrested by El Dorado Police that are housed at the county jail is exceeding the payments El Dorado is making toward their care.

Other cities

District 11 JP Ross Burton on Thursday asked who pays for an inmate's housing when they are arrested by an off-duty Sheriff's deputy who is performing paid police work for a local municipality. Roberts said the UCSO currently pays for those inmates.

"It's a way that they're getting around paying for their coverage, that they're hiring an off-duty deputy that's there on the clock for that city," Burton said. "If you want that option to go after it, that's the way you go. Now, if there's nobody working for the City of Strong, Huttig, wherever, Junction (City), and a deputy's got to respond to a call and makes an arrest, that's just doing the job they're supposed to do, but if they're being paid by that city, if you want to transfer the costs, that's the way you're going to transfer it."

Roberts agreed that the issue will need to be addressed.

"Junction (City) just called me this week and they're having a hard time finding a police chief, so they've asked to hire a couple of our off-duty officers down there, so it's going to come up if they make those arrests like that," Roberts said. "We usually don't have a whole lot in Strong and Huttig, but it's something I think we're going to have to do."

He suggested that the Quorum Court could consider an ordinance in the future that would address arrests made by off-duty deputies who are being paid to police local cities.

"When we built the jail, every municipality in Union County signed an agreement that they would support this jail ... We don't get anything from anybody, hardly, except El Dorado, mainly El Dorado," said District 7 JP Johnny Burson. "When we did this, every little city, like Strong, Huttig, Norphlet, Calion, everybody had their own police department and when they arrested somebody, they paid the daily rate. Since then, most of them have done away with their police departments, and so we assume the policing and all the liability and the expenditures for keeping that prisoner."

The City of Smackover does currently have a police department.

Other suggestions

District 1 JP Mike Dumas, who chairs the Quorum Court's Finance Committee, said another option cities have to cover their jail costs would be passing a sales tax increase for that purpose.

"I would strongly support an ordinance doing away with the jail fee if the cities and county would adopt a half-cent sales tax ... to support the jail," Dumas said.

Dumas said such a tax could generate up to $3.5 million per year.

Roberts said he agreed, so long as the revenue generated by the tax went straight to the jail.

"I'm not a for taxes guy, God forbid ... but that's the only way that everybody's going to come out ahead," Roberts said.

"This would just be spreading the burden out," Burson added.

"We needed 'Tax Hike Mike (Dumas)' to bring it up," joked District 2 JP Justin Hendrix.

New rate

"Most departments around, most counties around here, are at about $55-something per inmate," Roberts said on Thursday.

Roberts said the City of El Dorado would owe between $33,000 and $43,000 each month if it paid the same $40 per inmate per day rate other cities are supposed to.

District 3 JP Greg Harrison noted that the $53 per inmate per day rate represents about a 30% increase over the $40 per day rate to house an inmate. He said prices for consumer goods have risen about 60% just this year.

"If you listen to some council members, they have the money," said Harrison.

Roberts said he also hopes to negotiate with the U.S. Marshal Service for a new, higher daily inmate housing rate. Chief Deputy Charlie Phillips said in 2019 that the federal agency paid $50 per inmate per day.

Additionally, Roberts said the State of Arkansas recently increased the daily rate it pays for inmates to $32 per inmate per day.

Roberts noted that cities are only responsible for paying for an inmate's care until charges are filed against them, or until they're convicted of a misdemeanor offense -- a maximum of 60 days, he said, as that's how long prosecutors have to file felony charges against an individual.

After that, and when inmates are awaiting transfer to the ADC, the county is responsible for the cost of their care.

"We're bottlenecked up out there. We have very little moving and shaking, so very few people can come to jail, and I hate to sit down here and admit it, but that's where we're at," Roberts said. "The court system has bottlenecked us up, the ADC system has bottlenecked us up."

He also noted that the county can't refuse to house anyone brought in by the Arkansas State Police, which he said doesn't pay any fees for inmates' housing and care.

The ordinance proposed on Thursday established a $53 per inmate per day charge to all municipalities starting Jan. 1, 2022. It stipulates that the ordinance will be reviewed annually.

Roberts said the new rate would go into effect for El Dorado on July 1, 2022, once the current contract has expired.

Present JPs voted unanimously in favor of the new jail rate. District 8 JP Donnie Crawford was absent from Thursday's meeting.

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