First in a series

At the end of 2014, Madison County announced it was voluntarily closing its jail after failing to pass a one-cent sales tax and failing multiple inspections for more than a decade. Voters had rejected sales-tax increases for jail improvements in 2008 and 2013. 

The jail was converted  into a 24-hour holding facility. For nearly eight years, the county transported detainees to The Washington County Detention Center.

But in December 2021, due to overcrowding and staffing issues, Washington County terminated its contract with Madison County, informing officials it could no longer house Madison County detainees, leaving the county to look elsewhere for jail space.

As of September, the county had several people remaining in Washington County and placed in jails located in Carroll, Newton, LaFayette and Franklin counties. 

Madison County Clerk Tamitha Blocker said the county usually has between 50 and 60 inmates in other jails. 

After Washington County canceled its contract, Madison County Quorum Court members approved asking voters to pass a 0.5% sales and use tax to build a 148-bed jail. This tax, which is estimated to generate approximately $17 million, would sunset after the jail is paid for, which is estimated to take 20 to 25 years.  Costs to build the jail are estimated to be 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 maintenance and operations of the proposed jail. This tax is estimated to generate $2.4 million per year, of which $2 million is estimated to be needed yearly. 

Most voters recognize the need for a jail; however, many have expressed concern that the tax rate would be too high and adversely impact businesses. If the sales and use taxes pass, Huntsville and St. Paul will have the second highest sales tax rate in the state, according to 

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%.  

At Monday night’s Huntsville City Council meeting, the council announced that a one-cent sales tax rate in the city will expire in March 2024, making the city’s tax rate at that time 11.25%. 

The proposed sales tax increase will come close to doubling the county tax rate. In addition to the state tax, the county has two one-cent sales taxes. Sales and use taxes are paid by anyone doing business in the county, including people purchasing items while passing through. The tax is not paid for by only Madison County residents.

Current sales tax rates in Madison County include state sales taxes of 6.5%, a 1% sales tax dedicated to roads and bridges, and a 1% sales tax dedicated to Emergency Medical Services. The sales tax for EMS was passed in 1982 and states that the surplus from the EMS sales tax can be added to the county’s general fund. 

According to Madison County Clerk Tamitha Blocker, after the jail closed in 2015, “The county had to begin pulling additional sales tax revenue from the EMS Fund to the County General Fund to help pay for prisoner housing costs.” The county budgeted $720,000 for 2022 to pay for housing and transportation costs. 

Some county officials argue that if the proposed sales and use taxes pass, the county would be able to use that funding to provide better emergency medical services, including the possibility of buying a new ambulance and providing additional staffing. 

In 2012, the EMS budget was $1,211,995.48. Today it’s $2,726,825.63. The county has not added an additional ambulance. Most people interviewed agreed the county is in desperate need of more services.

Businessman Lew Thompson, owner of Lew Thompson and Son Trucking, attended a quorum court meeting and offered to donate land the county could use to build a new EMS building. 

“I’m 100 percent for a jail,” Thompson said, but added that he would rather see the county build a smaller jail, not ask for such a large tax increase and use some county funding to provide better and additional emergency services.

Building a smaller jail would allow the county to repair a dilapidated courthouse and provide emergency services that would benefit everyone in the county and not just criminals, he said.

“This is why I have such a problem with us spending $18 million for a jail and our EMS is out there in a $200,000 shed and we have a courthouse that’s 80 or 90 years old,” he said.

He also said the cost to operate such a large jail hampers providing other county services. County officials project a yearly cost of at least $2 million to operate.

“The next few years, you’re going to spend $50 million,” Thompson said. “That’s a big number. And what could the county do with $50 million?”

Even though the permanent tax will be used for maintenance and operations of the jail, if the county does not have to house and transport detainees elsewhere, the county could use that funding to provide more EMS services.

“I will agree that EMS needs a new facility,” Madison County Judge Frank Weaver said. “If the proposed sales tax passes, we’ll be able to eventually not take money from EMS and it will go into their fund. They have $1.8 million in their fund and they could build a new building.”

“Lew [Thompson] did offer [land for a new building] and I think that’s a good offer. I don’t know that the county’s at the point in time where they can build it,” Weaver said. 

“And yes, there are many needs in this county. But unfortunately, I don’t think I can ask for money to fund them all and we don’t have the money to fund them all,” Weaver said. 

“If this passes, we’re going to be able to fix EMS, hire more staff and man another ambulance and in the future, they’ll be able to build a new building out of their own funds,” said Justice of the Peace Larry Garrett, who is also a candidate for county judge in the Nov. 8 General Election. Garrett said a new building would be possible on land next to a jail.

Blocker said the county will need another ambulance crew in the near future and the cost for an additional ambulance crew will be significant. 

“On another note, the call volume at EMS has been steadily increasing over the past several years,” she said.  “When an additional crew is added, there will not be as much ‘surplus’ to transfer to the county general fund, as EMS must be ‘fully funded’ first,” Blocker said. 

Law enforcement officers recognize that the tax increase is a lot but say it is needed. Not having a jail is ”wearing our personnel out and I’m afraid we’re going to have a mass exodus,” said Madison County Sheriff-elect Ronnie Boyd. 

Huntsville Police Chief Todd Thomas said officers are arresting people and having to let them go because there is no jail to put them in. 

Thomas said recently a woman with a $20,000 bond and eight failures to appear was walking around free. “We physically can’t arrest her because there was nowhere to go with her,” he told a crowd at a recent town hall. 

“We’re not being hyperbolic when we say we can’t do our job. We physically can’t do our job,” Thomas said at the meeting. 

High Taxes

While people recognize the need for a jail, not everyone supports the proposals to pay to build it and to operate it. 

Business owners are concerned such a high tax rate increase – 1.75% – will adversely affect their profitability.

“According to state and regional economic leaders, the high bar for sales tax has been 10% for a long time,” said Huntsville’s Economic Development and Tourism Director Brandi Holt.  

“It was not until 2013 that Madison County’s total sales tax increased to over that amount. With a sales tax increase being discussed local businesses may be concerned of its impact.” 

“It’s already high and it’s about to go up?” said Terry Presley, a developer who is in the process of constructing approximately 60 houses in Huntsville. 

Huntsville Mayoral candidate and city councilman Travis Dotson said, “I personally choose to support the current idea of a jail and tax; however, as a candidate for mayor, I do worry very much about the small businesses and merchants within the city and how this increase in tax will affect their business.” 

Owner of Coger’s Surplus Bettinna Coger has always been a strong advocate for the shop local campaign, asking people to shop in Madison County. She predicts if the sales tax increase passes, people will not continue to shop local as much as they do now. 

She also said the higher tax could prevent people from coming into the county.

“Everybody wants a bargain. And if it’s not there, they’re not going to come,” she said. 

The less a business makes, the less it can contribute charitably. 

“If we see a decrease in sales, there just won’t be any extra to donate,” she said. 

“Everyone wants a jail but no one wants to pay higher taxes,” Coger said.  

“People are still making the same amount of money but the cost of living has gone up.” 

Brent Hargis owns Luck of the Draw liquor store in Huntsville and Kings River Country Store in Marble and recognizes, “There’s a lot of benefits of having a jail,” but also says such a large increase will adversely affect his businesses. 

“It’s hard to judge how much impact it will have because [the county] is growing some,” Hargis said. 

Leon Samuels, who owns Ozarks313 and Huntsville Floral and Gifts, said he also knows the need for a jail and dislikes that the county is paying too much to transport and house detainees in other counties. 

But, he also said taxes are already high. “As a business owner, I do get a lot of complaints. Now, whether I will lose business, that remains to be seen.”

Hargis said businesses in the county have always been at a disadvantage because local businesses can’t compete against larger ones in surrounding counties. Ordering in bulk is not possible because businesses don’t have as much foot traffic. 

“Small business margins tend to be small,” Holt said. “So with any tax increase, those business owners have to plan for changes in buyer behavior. Customers will be spending more on items, but will they choose to spend more on less expensive items or will they just purchase less? These are questions businesses will have to address to continue to be successful.”

Hargis also said the county is not as populated so taxes have to be inherently higher. 

Business owners are worried that people who work in Washington or Benton counties will shop there. 

“And they’re looking to save money anywhere they can,” Coger said, “so if they can save money by driving then they’re going to drive it.” 

Jackie Hall said when he moved to Madison County from El Dorado 10 years ago, the first thing he noticed was how high the taxes were. 

He said if the tax increase passes, he’ll shop in Springdale “because I can pay cheaper in gas and plus I got more options over there.”

Thompson agrees that the county could see a decrease in sales, asking why people would “come here to buy their groceries, spend their money in Huntsville and pay 12 and a quarter percent when they can go to a neighboring community and pay 8 or 9 percent.” 

Others contend because of current inflation and higher gas prices, citizens are being asked to pay too much. 

“I think it’s too much money,” Justice of the Peace T.W. Dotson said. 

“We’re at 8% inflation right now and possibly looking at another huge jump in the next little bit. The federal interest rates overall have gone up.

“Gas prices are at a high, diesel is high and you’re going to add 1.75 percent tax on the people.” 

T.W. Dotson said he supports and recognizes the need for jail but that the county is building one too big and could build a smaller one and ask for less as far as a tax increase. 

Jeremy Updegraff, who is challenging Garrett for county judge, said at a recent town hall that he is worried that people will stop shopping in the county if the proposed tax is passed. He noted that business in the county is not good and pointed to the empty buildings on the square.

With a potential sales tax of 12.25%, “People will say it will be cheaper to go somewhere else,” Updegraff said.

“If you’re concerned about businesses leaving town, you need to join the chamber of commerce and you need to start working with them on stuff,” Thomas told Updegraff at the meeting.

“We’re up here because the safety of our community is in peril,” Thomas said. 

Boyd, who has been conducting information sessions promoting the need for the jail and the sales tax increase for its funding, said, “I understand the concern that any increase could have possibly, potentially a negative impact on businesses.” But he said without the increase, the sheriff’s department could, “end up losing all our employees.” 

Proponents of the jail say a tax increase is a small price to pay for safety. 

“Is it worth a little bit more to us in a sales tax or are we willing to live with a little bit more crime?” Boyd asked people attending a recent informational session. 

“I think there’s a cost for having a jail and a cost for not having a jail and I’m asking people which is the bigger cost you’re willing to live with. I see the crime going up,” Boyd said in a recent interview with The Record. 

“Law and order comes with a price,” Thomas said. “It’s not an option to do nothing.”

“So the guy out here dealing dope to your kids and stealing your stuff, he goes up there and he gets cited out,” said Johnna Cornett, who is outspoken about the county’s need for a jail. She says paying the extra tax will be worth it because of the crime in the county. 

“He doesn’t even have to pay a bond. There’s no repercussions. He gets right back out. He goes and does it to your neighbor. It happens over and over and over again,” Cornett said.

“Is it worth $1.75 more than you’re paying on $100 to ya?” Weaver asked. 

“Do you want someone arrested here and he’s right back later on doing the same thing. … If my granddaughter got raped, I’d want the guy behind bars. Those will probably stay behind bars. But they come and steal my $60,000 Ford pickup, they may not stay behind bars,” Weaver said. 

Higher taxes are needed because of Madison County’s smaller population. 

“There’s no way for us to get around the high ask for the jail,” Cornett said.

“You know, in Washington County, they’re wanting to expand 600 to 800 beds [in its jail]. They’re only asking for .25, but that’s $140 million they’re asking for. But they have 200,000 people in their county and we have 18,000. 

“So it’s going to cost us more, just like our groceries cost us more,” Cornett said.

“That’s just part of living in a small town,” Cornett said. 

Next week, The Record will report on the proposed jail’s possible location and its size, and the lack of other funding options.