Second in a series



Madison County Quorum Court members are asking voters to nearly double the county’s sales and use tax – increasing it by 1.75% – during the Nov. 8 General Election to fund a jail and its maintenance and operations after the Washington County Detention Center canceled its contract to house Madison County detainees in December.

Madison County currently has a 24-hour holding facility. 

The sales increase would fund building a 148-bed jail. Two different taxes are on the ballot. A 0.5% tax, which is estimated to generate approximately $17 million, would sunset after the jail is paid for in approximately 20 to 25 years.  The cost to build the jail is estimated to between $15 to $16 million, not including the land it will be constructed on. 

The court is also asking voters to approve a permanent 1.25% sales and use tax for the jail’s maintenance and operations. This tax is estimated to generate $2.4 million per year, of which $2 million is estimated to be needed yearly. 

With the addition of the proposed taxes, the county tax rate will increase from 8.5% to 10.25% and in Huntsville and St. Paul, the sales and use tax will increase from 10.5% to 12.25%.  

Most voters recognize the need for a jail, but some question whether the location originally voted on by the quorum court is the best place to build. Some ask why no state funding or grants exist to assist the county, which is only one of three in the state without a jail. Other community leaders are concerned the proposed jail is too large, making it unaffordable to operate and maintain. Business owners are concerned the tax is too high and question whether the timing is right to ask for an increase – arguing that expected growth in the county will provide funding for a jail without a tax. In this week’s series, The Record considers those questions.


Location


This summer, Madison County Judge Frank Weaver appointed various community members to a jail committee tasked with considering land options for the proposed jail’s location. The committee started with several options, ending up suggesting two properties located near the 412 Bypass. 

In August, quorum court members voted to purchase 15 acres on a piece of property they called the Burkes’ South property, subject to core drilling samples, which would indicate how difficult it would be to build on the property. 

The other piece of property, known as the Coger property, came with potential conflicts of interest by sitting quorum court members. The property is owned by the grandfather-in-law of Justice of the Peace Luke Dotson. 

On Monday, quorum court members received the report from SouthBuild of Collierville, Tenn., which has been working on the jail project with the court. The report indicated that the Burkes property is a “good site – which can be further improved by adjusting the specific positioning of the building.”

Madison County Clerk Tamitha Blocker told members that because the property passed the core drilling test, Weaver contacted property owner Jesse Burkes to discuss the layout of the 15 acres that the county will purchase.  

“Mr. Burkes has agreed to grant the county a right-of-way easement from the east entrance of the property to the proposed property boundary line for ingress/egress, as well as utilities.  The Judge has also engaged a surveyor to survey off the proposed 15 acres,” Blocker told JPs in an email. 

Weaver stated at a recent town hall meeting that pleasing everyone with the location will be difficult. Despite the ordinance being passed, Madison County sheriff-elect Ronnie Boyd has stated at those same meetings that more discussions will take place concerning the location. 

Larry Garrett, justice of the peace and Republican nominee for county judge in the Nov. 8 general election, said the quorum court could vote to rescind the ordinance. 

“I think the quorum court has the option and the ability to do that.”

At Monday’s regular meeting, five members voted to do just that. Luke Dotson made a motion to rescind the ordinance after a report presented to the court found rock close to the surface and to allow for core drilling samples at the Coger property. (See Related Story, Page 1A)

The Burkes’ property is located less than two miles from NorthArk, a girl scout camp at 8580 Madison, north of the proposed site, and approximately one mile from The Enclave subdivision. Both groups have sent representatives to the town hall meetings as well as quorum court meetings to complain they were not aware the land near the camp and the subdivision was even being considered for a jail. 

“I have been very outspoken about what I perceive as a lack of opportunity for our voters in the county to be involved with the decision making process for a future jail. I just feel an informed public is a public that is willing to help,” City Councilman and mayoral candidate Travis Dotson said. Dotson is also a member of the jail committee. 

At one such meeting, a Girls Scout representative who does not live in Madison County said the camp generates revenue for the county and the camp is not pleased with the location choice.

The representative also asked Boyd, “We have hundreds of children next to the criminals that will be getting out, how can we work together when they are released?”

“Most of the time they are released, they are picked up but sometimes when people are released, they take off walking,” Boyd said. 

The representative said, “That image [the jail] is not what they want to see when they drop their 6-year-old daughter off.” 

However, local Girl Scout leaders in Madison County do not support that position and said they are not opposed to the jail’s proposed location on the Burkes’ property. Director of the Madison County Service Unit for Girl Scouts Tiffany Weaver said she understands property availability around Huntsville is dwindling. 

Some area representatives are concerned about the “visuals,” but Tiffany Weaver of Kingston said, “There’s jails everywhere. There’s jails in every city and no one makes a big deal out of it. They’re right next to schools. They’re right next to businesses. Our perspective is right now, we have criminals on the street and we need somewhere to put them because our girls right now are not safe when there’s criminals on the street.”

Tiffany Weaver thinks a proposed jail on the Burkes’ property signifies a law enforcement presence close to the camp. 

“With the sheriff’s office being right there, they don’t have to go through town, they don’t have to go through traffic, they don’t have to go through intersections. They are a jump and a skip from camp, if we needed them,” Weaver said. 

Johanna Cornett, who is outspoken in favor of a proposed jail, said she feels bad for the people who live in the Enclave.

“They live in the nicest subdivision in the county and we’re going to choose their neighborhood to put the jail right next to.” 

She said she prefers the Coger property because “It’s hidden. It’s flat and it’s easy to expand onto if we need additional buildings. … But when it comes down to it, I want a jail.”

Boyd also has said he prefers the Coger property.

Brent Hargis, owner of Luck of the Draw Liquor in Huntsville and Kings River Country Store in Marble, said from what he knows of the two properties, building on the Coger property would be the least expensive of the two and easier. “You’re going to have to do a bunch of dirt work on the top of a hill. I mean that’s a no-brainer.” 

Businessman Lew Thompson, owner of Lew Thompson and Son Trucking, agrees that the Coger property “is a great piece of property, but that’s not the issue.” The area surrounding the Coger property has seen exponential growth in the last five years and is considered the “heart of the future business” in Huntsville.  “I don’t think that’s an appropriate place to sit and look at a jail,” Thompson said. 


Other Funding


Community members have asked if Madison County is one of only three counties in the state without a jail, does help exist in the form of grants or funding. Generally the answer is that no grants exist for the construction of a jail. 

“No, I have not asked the state agency per se, any particular agency,” for funding, Frank Weaver said. “I’ve talked to legislators, but their reply to me is, ‘Yeah, I know you need help. We’ll see what we can’t do.’

“But this is a complicated problem because state prisons are overpopulated,” he said.

Recently, due to overcrowding in state prisons, which is causing a back up on county jails, the state decided to release 400 state prisoners early. 

Weaver said he has not applied for any grants to fund the construction of a jail “because I haven’t found any out there that’s available.”

Cornett said she has researched grants and alternative funding as well and there are “no grants to build a jail but grants exist for redoing the courthouse, helping with emergency services or training and equipment for the sheriff’s office.”

Garrett told a crowd recently that legislators had told him,“‘Madison County, you’re going to have to stand on your own two feet. We’ll help you through grants or whatever you need for deputies.’ I hope that happens.”

Weaver said loans might be available through the USDA but that requires a matching part and a sustainable fund and those are generally loans and not grants. He said without the sales tax increase, Madison County does not have funding to match any granted. 

Boyd said he had looked into grants through USDA but nothing is available. 

“There’s no help on the way and I have looked at that,” Boyd said.


Size


Even though Boyd said he originally thought a 100-bed jail was adequate, he changed his mind after learning that the cost to add 48 more beds was only $1.7 million.

“That just really seemed like a no-brainer to me, to go ahead and get the space,” Boyd said.

He said Baxter County added 50 beds in 2018 and the cost was $4.2 million.

“If you’re looking at $17 million and you knock off $1.7, that’s not a lot,” of savings, he said. 

Justice of the Peace T.W. Dotson said the county should be looking at how much it can afford, and he worries that the county might not be able to fund the operations of a jail that size.

“I think you could run a 75-bed jail, so let’s build a 75-bed jail at .5% and pay it off as fast as you can and sunset it. And, then let’s run the jail for .5%,” T. W. Dotson said. 

Thompson said building a jail that large could hurt the passage of a sales tax. He said he wants a jail and a safe county, but doesn’t believe the county should be proposing to spend so much on a jail. 

“It’s going to cost $3.5 to $4 million a year to pay for the bond and operate the jail. They spend about $700,000 a year transporting prisoners. That’s pretty cheap compared to $3.5 to $4 million a year. 

“I don’t like them spending $700,000 either. But it’s not a good business decision to go from spending $700,000 to $3.4 to $4 million a year,” he said. 

Opinions differ on whether the size is actually needed, despite the lower cost of building larger now.

Boyd said he will need time to properly staff the jail and that he would be reluctant to fill it with detainees from outside the county. 

“I’m not looking to max it out or get a contract to house other counties’ prisoners,” he said. 

And even though he originally thought 100 beds would be adequate, by the time the jail is built, it might not be large enough.

At a recent town hall meeting, Huntsville Chief of Police Todd Thomas told the crowd, “Do we need a 148-bed jail? Yes, we do. We need one bigger than that. We have to settle for that.” 

Quorum court members have been told by law enforcement that if the county builds 100-bed jail, “We’ll fill it tomorrow and then we’re still having to haul people off or turn them loose,” Garrett said.

“We don’t want to have to come back to the voters in 10 years and say, ‘Hey, this ain’t working. We’ve got to expand,’” Garrett said. 

Boyd said he thought a 100-bed jail would be adequate but, “I think by the time that’s built and it’s up and running we could be saying, ‘Well we didn’t build big enough.’”

Others say the need for that large of a jail is not there. 

Thompson said Boone and Carroll counties are more populated counties and both have smaller jails. “Have we got that many more criminals in Madison County than in Boone and Carroll Counties? Or are we just over-exaggerating what we want?” he said. 

He said statistically, the county needs one bed for every 400 persons.

“With 16,000 people and a 150-bed jail, that’s a bed for every 100 people. We’re either building a jail that’s four times too big or we’ve got four times more criminals in Madison County,” Thompson said. 

“I would like to have a 20-story high-rise and if you’re going to pay for it, I’ll let you build me one. But if I’ve got to pay for it, I’m going to stay right here where I’m at and make is work,” Thompson said. 


If One Tax Passes


Skeptics are worried that the county has made a mistake asking for two different taxes and worry if only one passes – the .5% – the county will be obligated to build a jail that it won’t have the finances to operate and maintain. 

“I can’t tell you if the quorum court would have a recourse to go about not building it. I’m not sure that the county would be obligated to build that if they had no money to run it,” Weaver said. 

But on Aug. 9, Kevin Fraught of Stephens and Associates, who is the underwriter for the jail project, told the quorum court that if the 0.5% passes, the jail would have to be built even if the 1.25% doesn’t pass. 

Weaver said he’s hopeful both pass at the same time because the county needs the 1.25% to “build a cushion” until the jail is built. 

“But you have to start saving now to fund the M&O. The quorum court can’t appropriate money that is not there,” Weaver said. “So the M&O needs to pass now in order to have a cushion to fund the jail if it is built.”


Underfunding 


Voters are also concerned the proposed 1.25% sales tax increases will not provide enough revenue to actually operate and maintain the jail. Fraught told the court that that kind of rate could generate $2.5 million per year. The county is estimating it will need at least $2 million per year. 

Thompson said Boone County has a 100-bed jail and the county budgets $2.2 million to maintain and operate it. “We’re building a 150-bed jail and we’re budgeting $2 million to run it,” he said. 

He also worries that if a recession occurs and sales tax decreases, the county could be low on funds for the operation and maintenance. 

According Blocker, sales tax revenues fluctuate and can be impacted by downturns in the economy.

“During past economic recessions, I have seen the overall county sales tax decrease by over $400,000 in one year.  I have seen revenue stay relatively flat for several years at a time.  The past few years have seen an increase in revenue,” she said. 

From the beginning, Weaver has warned the court not to make the mistake of underfunding the jail’s maintenance and operations budget. 

Discussions at recent quorum court meetings included proposals from 0.5% to 2% possible sales tax for the maintenance and operations budget. Justice of the Peace Pattie Shinn made a motion for a 2% sales tax just for maintaining and operating the budget, but after public comments from other JPs and those attending the meeting, she withdrew her proposal. 

When the court approved asking voters to approve a 1.25% increase, Shinn stated, “I’m telling you right now, we just underfunded our jail.”

Originally Boyd said he was willing to go with a 1% increase. “But we’re obviously underfunded in the sheriff’s office and that’s been an ongoing issue for a long time,” Boyd said. “It’s hard getting equipment and extra personnel.”

Boyd also ran for sheriff on the platform of giving raises to sheriff personnel. 

“We’re never going to be competitive with Benton and Washington County,” but if the 1.25% sales and use tax passes, “potentially, maybe we could make that happen,” he said. 

During the past 10 years, sales tax in the county has doubled, but, according to Blocker, so have county expenses. 

Business owners are concerned the proposed tax increases are too high and question whether the timing is right to ask for an increase – arguing that expected growth in the county will provide funding for a jail without a tax.

“The $2 million in additional revenue over the past 10 years … has been used to keep pace with inflation and the overall increase in the cost to operate both the Road and Bridge Department and the EMS.  

“Basically, the $2M has been used to keep up with the cost to provide those services to the public. It’s no different than someone’s personal budget.  A person may receive a cost of living raise each year at work, but the cost of goods and services generally increase each year as well, so the raise they received just helps them to keep pace with inflation. It is the same for county government,” Blocker said.


Next week, The Record will consider the argument that the county cannot afford to go without a jail and whether crime has escalated and will get worse and whether that is affecting officers’ morale.