A sparse crowd of approximately 50 people turned out Monday evening for a town hall meeting to address a proposed new jail and law enforcement center to be voted on Dec. 12. Helena-West Helena Mayor Jay Hollowell and the city council called the session that was held in Community Room at Phillips Community College.

A sparse crowd of approximately 50 people turned out Monday evening for a town hall meeting to address a proposed new jail and law enforcement center to be voted on Dec. 12. Helena-West Helena Mayor Jay Hollowell and the city council called the session that was held in Community Room at Phillips Community College.

Chris Richey, executive director of the Phillips County Chamber of Commerce and state representative, served as the moderator of the meeting, which lasted a little over an hour. After reading the measure that will appear on the December ballot, Richey established the ground rules for the session. The session was open to question and comments with comments limited to 3 to 5 minutes.

Richey then turned the meeting over to Hollowell who commented, "I was asked by the council to conduct a town hall meeting on the jail matter. It is for informational purposes only."

The majority of funding for the new jail facility will come from the reallocation of the so-called "Harbor Tax," which is scheduled to expire on June 30, 2020. Information provided on a handout distributed prior to the meeting, showed that the city of Helena-West Helena stood to lose $1,109,000

if the tax ends and is not replaced.

The same handout revealed that the city would lose $693,000 in revenue if the jail proposal was approved.

Hollowell estimated that approximately 78 percent of the city's current budget is for payroll.

"It would be difficult to make the drastic cuts necessary to replace that amount of revenue without seriously reducing services," said Hollowell.

The information sheet stated that municipalities losing the revenue would have to offset the losses by some combination of raising water,sanitation and/or rates, fees and charges; or by reducing police, fire, street and sanitation, and other vital staff.

Rev. Mike Wilkie got the question and answer session started by asking, "Is there any question the city needs a jail?"

Alderman Don Etherly, a local attorney, responded, "It is convenient to have a jail and it would it be great to have a jail."

When asked about the cost of transferring prisoners to and from other jails in other counties, Etherly replied, "I don't know that anyone has put in down in actual numbers but it might just be cheaper than housing them here and maintaining a facility on a yearly basis."

Etherly noted that the jail proposal came from the county.

"Since the plan is going to take $693,000 out of the city budget, they have should have come to us with the proposal,"Etherly commented.

One member of the audience stated, "We really don't know what we are getting for the money. There is nothing in black and white regarding the cost to maintain the facility. Can we afford to have the facility?"

Another member of the audience asked, "Is this a bad proposal?"

Hollowell more or less sidestepped the question stating, "Im not here to tell you how to vote."

"Frankly, I was hoping for a larger crowd and entertaining some dialogue from the county," the mayor added.

Phillips County Judge Clark Hall had a scheduling conflict and could not attend Monday's meeting.

The Quorum Court unanimously passed an ordinance for the re-allocation of the harbor tax for the purpose of constructing a new facility be voted on in a special election. At that Oct. 10 meeting Hall offered the petition bearing 1,200 signatures of registered voters in the county as widespread proof of overwhelming support for the measure.

Phillips County has been without a jail since April 2013 when it failed an inspection and was cited for several serious violations. Currently, the county is among 16 of Arkansas 75 counties that do not operate a jail.

Back in August when Hall announced the proposal for the new jail, Sheriff Neal Byrd reported that the county spends roughly $800,000 transporting prisoners to jail and court appearances as well as feeding them and providing needed health care services.

In closing, local businessman Jerry Wentzel remarked, "Ultimately, what the city needs to replace revenue is more tax-producing businesses. New jobs and businesses prevent a lot of ills."

Hollowell commented that the city was making an effort to clean up the community and to make it more attractive for prospective businesses.

"The Cherry Street and downtown area looks better than it has in years," he said. "We still have more than our fair share of dilapidated buildings and overgrown lots."

In conclusion, Rev. Wilkie remarked, "We need to be a community of love and go out and work together and do whatever it takes to make Helena-West Helena a better place to live."