Watson urges JPs to ‘start thinking’ about a new jail
By JOEL PHELPS | The Arkadelphian
The average person would expect to see a fresh set of prisoners at a jail each week, as new prisoners arrive while others are released for serving their time. At the Clark County Detention Center, however, the staff come and go as seemingly often as the prisoners do.
Speaking to members of the Clark County Quorum Court, Sheriff Jason Watson on Monday said the constant ebb and flow of jailers is “the biggest drain” on the county’s coffers. “When one gets trained, they’re out the door to go somewhere else,” Watson said. Of the eight total jailer positions, seven are now filled after two were hired in recent days.
The high turnover, he said, is most likely because of the salary. The sheriff compared Clark County’s jailer pay to other nearby counties:
Hot Spring County
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Watson’s presentation to the quorum court was in response to recent discussion among justices about creating a committee to address situations at the jail.
Asked by Justice Jenna Scott (R-Joan) what the jail’s major obstacle is, Watson didn’t hesitate to respond: “Jailer pay. If we don’t talk at some point in the near future about jail pay, there’s no sense in discussing anymore items about the jail.”
Watson said his “ultimate goal” for the jail is to level the pay grade so that jailers’ salaries are on par with those of patrol deputies. Jailers and dispatchers, who are on the same pay scale, currently pull down $29,238 annually, while the base pay for a deputy is $36,120 per year, or $15.43 per hour.
Pointing out that pay for county employees is typically addressed across the board — meaning increases are given to every county employee — county Judge Troy Tucker suggested the court consider looking at jailer pay differently. “Public safety should probably be at the top of the list,” he said.
Switching gears, Scott inquired whether Watson would be in favor of building a new jail.
Problems at the jail outdate Watson’s 13-year career as the top law enforcement officer. Former sheriff David Turner also found the jail to be a headache for the sheriff’s office, as he constantly battled food costs, maintenance costs and security issues. When Watson campaigned for the position, he vowed not to ask for a new jail. While he now realizes that building a new facility is imminent, he said there’s no way right now that the county could operate a new jail.
“We’re in no position for a new jail,” Watson said. “If y’all handed me the keys to [a brand new jail], we couldn’t open the door. We’re not prepared to staff it, to feed [prisoners], to provide medical care, [or] every basic necessity that we have to provide. We’re not ready for that.”
But, he insisted, the time is ripe to begin planning to replace the 39-year-old jail.
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“Down the road we’re gonna have to look at [constructing a new facility],” Watson told justices. “Whether I run again or not … it’s going to be something that has to be addressed.
While there could be advantages to having a new jail — the county could capitalize on housing females and/or juveniles — more responsibilities would follow, such as the additional costs to staff the jail and to provide for the prisoners.
“We need to start planning,” Watson said, “whether it’s for me or whoever else. We need to start looking for the future.”
Committees to consider jailer pay
The county’s Personnel Committee, which is comprised of justices, will meet in coming weeks to address needs for positions, while the Budget Committee would consider any increase in base pay after determining if the funds are available.
JP pay raise advances to final reading
An ordinance to raise justices’ per diem pay to $300 per meeting will have its third and final reading at the next quorum court meeting, scheduled for April.
The per diem increase comes at the behest of Justice Albert Neal (D-Arkadelphia), who has rallied since 2022 for the increase because justices haven’t had an increase in pay in more than two decades.
Justices Scott and B.J. Johns (R-Amity) cast the only dissenting votes to placing the ordinance on its second reading. Neal then moved to suspend the rules and place the ordinance on its third and final reading, a move that would require a 2/3 vote, or 8 votes total given Monday’s full quorum of 11 justices. Neal’s motion would fail 7-4, with justices Johns, Scott, Wayne Baumgardner (R-Gurdon/Southfork) and Mark Overturf (R-Arkadelphia/DeGray) dissenting.
Livestream ordinance back at square one
Introducing a revised ordinance that removed a deadline for live-streaming quorum court meetings, Justice Michael Ankton (D-Arkadelphia) said he had consulted with an attorney with the Arkansas Association of Counties and learned there are no state laws concerning livestream services.
Video recordings could be put on any social media page already established by the county, or they could be posted to a YouTube channel or the county’s website. Ankton suggested the purchase of a tablet and tripod as an inexpensive option to give the court time to decide if it wants to continue the livestream service.
That ordinance goes to its second reading at the next meeting.
NAACP, Alliance leaders clash over incentives guidelines
Bruce Bell, president of the county’s NAACP branch, was given 15 minutes to speak on the 1/2-cent economic development sales tax. Bell took issue with the “new tax” that voters passed in 2021 that was intended to open the doors for retailers — namely minority-owned retailers — to qualify for portions of the sales tax.
Bell spoke at length about his interpretation of the state law and how he felt tax supporters used a “bait and switch” strategy to persuade Black voters. The guidelines previously established were found to be moot once a new attorney was hired and determined the state’s constitution doesn’t allow economic development sales tax to be used for retail.
In conclusion, Bell asked justices to consider reinstating the guidelines the Little Rock attorney deemed unlawful. He also asked Tucker to find a way to create an incentives application that abides by the state constitution. There was some back-and-forth argument between Bell and Tucker regarding Bell’s claims.
Shelley Short, CEO of the Arkadelphia Regional Economic Development Alliance, was given the chance to defend the accusations Bell had voiced. Short, who began her role in September 2022, said she has done her best to respond to different groups inquiring about the “new tax” incentives.
It was at Short’s behest that the EDCCC hired a Little Rock attorney who specializes in tax issues (county Attorney Todd Turner, who had represented the EDCCC since its 2007 inception, stepped down from the position once Short found another attorney). Upon further review the Little Rock attorney determined that the state statute governs any guidelines established by a county’s economic development board. In complying with the 2017 Economic Development Act, Short said, retail or similar services are not permitted to receive tax funds.
The EDCCC voted to revise the guidelines, which were then submitted to the quorum court and approved. Short said the Alliance has since stopped accepting applications for “new tax” incentives, and has had to turn away both Black and White retail business owners who wished to apply.