Basically, Phillips County has three options available to alleviate its jail problems, after officially closing its 75-bed, 30 plus year old facility on April 30.
John Edwards, a member of the Arkansas House of Representatives, Southern Bancorp's board of directors and Phillips County landowner, told the county's quorum court Tuesday night that there are three options open to solve the jail situation – rehab the existing facility, build a new jail, or open a regional jail.
According to Edwards a possible regional jail is attracting some strong interest from some neighboring counties, including St. Francis, Woodruff, Prairie, Cross, Lee and Monroe counties
“Since there is not a whole lot of money to around, the idea of sharing expenses seems attractive to some neighbors,” said Edwards. “Some are willing to help because they realize they could easily wind up in the same situation.”
“At this point, we don't know what the best option for the county will be,” continued Edwards. “This is still the fact gathering stage. The county will have to shop around and compare costs.”
Edwards acknowledged that Sheriff Neal Byrd had inherited a “rough situation” and was doing the best that he could do with the hand he was dealt.
Phillips County was forced to close its jail after a state inspection found serious violations in need of prompt correction. Violations included sewage overflowing into cells, broken locks and lack of smoke detectors and fire alarms.
Since the closure, Phillips County began housing its 60-prisoners in Cross County (22), East Arkansas Regional Unit at Brickeys (16) and four or five in Ashley County at a cost of $315 a week, or almost $15,120 a year. This does not include medical costs or travel expenses.
Almost all business on the quorum court's marathon agenda centered on the county's jail situation.
The JPs passed an ordinance officially closing the Phillips County Jail. Article 2 of the ordinance deletes the Jail Department and all positions in that department effective May 31. The ordinance prohibits the use of the facility for the detention of prisoners with the exception of booking and transporting them to another facility.
The ordinance also fixed the number of full-time employees in the Phillips County Sheriff's Department and established the base pay for those workers. It also added five new positions to the sheriff's department.
The JPs were to meet in special session Thursday night to discuss ordinances needed to transfer money the money for the new positions. Byrd said he would begin advertising the jobs.
Before the passage of the ordinance, former dispatcher Pat Lenore expressed her concern about she learned about the jail closure and the filling of the five positions added to the Sheriff's Department. Lenore said she learned of the closure by a memo.
Eighteen employees, including 9 full-time workers were laid off. Five were retained as Sheriff's Department employees.
Page 2 of 2 - “This decision affected the professional and financial livelihood of several people,” stated Lenore. “I was blessed I had another full-time job. I am not here to place blame but when the new positions were filled seniority was not used as a consideration.”
Lenore had been employed as a dispatcher for 10 years. She alleged that those selected for dispatching positions were not trained in that capacity.
“I am questioning why these positions were advertized,” she continued. “It seems that preparations for this closure could have been made earlier.”
In response, Byrd replied, “It all came as a surprise to me too. I had to do it. If I had it to do all over again I would do it the same way.”
Michael McBryde of Stephens Inc. briefly presented three financing options to generate construction funding for a jail project. The funds could come from a bond election or selling the public on designating sales-tax money for the project. The options would net the county $2 million, $3 million and $5 million respectively. McBryde spelled out the repayment terms, estimated size of the bond issue, estimated maximum annual payment and estimated total repayment for each option.
McBryde said the county would complete the final annual $140,000 payment on the current jail note in March 2014.
At this point, James Suzuki Langford of SouthBuild, a team of contractors out of Memphis, suggested putting off his presentation regarding the construction of new facility.
“It is obvious, that you are not at this point, yet,” Langford. “Perhaps, we can meet again in June or perhaps July.”
Before the session adjourned, Danny Hickman, coordinator of the state's Criminal Detention Facilities Review Committee, told the quorum court that Byrd made the right decision shutting the jail down.
“This jail was a large bomb with a very short fuse that was going to go off,” he said.