Extra penny could help SFC avoid higher costs

 12/03/2019 - 16:17

One cent, a penny – one more penny. That’s what St. Francis County is asking voters to approve to fund the construction of a new county lockup. To say a new jail is needed is a gross understatement.
The tax will push Forrest City’s base sales tax rate to 11.5 percent, a penny more when you buy a hamburger, but if you want that hamburger bad enough, you don’t think about that extra few pennies it’s costing you.
And, as such, you shouldn’t think about the extra pennies it would cost you to help fund a new jail. Think about the future of this county and the safety of you and your family. Is that not worth a little extra money?
At least we’re getting something in return this time. How often has that happened? Property owners will see their millage rates lowered for at least five years to help offset some of the burden of the new tax.
With this new tax being proposed as a sales tax, it means everyone will pay it and SFC residents won’t have to bear this burden alone. As SFC residents, we will eventually be paying more – with or without the tax – and it’s up to us to decide which way is best for our families and our livelihoods.
Brodie and I recently toured the county jail with assistant administrator Larry Jones leading the way. He met us outside and began pointing out problems before we could even get “buzzed in” to see the actual holding facility. Problems are rampant and conditions are deplorable. There’s really no better way to describe that entire facility. That’s not a shot at the jail staff at all. They’re doing the best they can with what they have. They just don’t have much to work with.
Miss Jonnie, the jail administrator, makes her office in a converted storage area. Larry’s office, if you want to call it that, is housed in a room that doubles as a cafeteria on holidays and special occasions. It also houses rows of files full of confidential information on anyone ever processed at the county jail – anyone. Think about that. Records right there where inmates gather for meals. Sure, they’re secured as well as they can be, but inmates are inmates for a reason.
The tour takes us along a maze of dark corridors that lead from the “new” portion, which was built in 1989, into the “old” portion built in 1942, through the kitchen, to the basement then upstairs. We tour the downstairs cells and exercise areas along the way.
The kitchen is comparable in size to one you would find in a small 2-bedroom home. There are 5 or 6 inmates working on that evening’s meal. They’re polite and more than happy to point out problems in the kitchen, most of which are already obvious. There’s the sprayer in the sink that’s constantly running because it can’t be shut off. There’s an exposed drain hole in the middle of the floor. Getting the meals to inmates in the upstairs cells is done via a dumbwaiter using an old rope pulley system that must be original to the 1942 design. It’s something you would just have to see for yourself, as is the entire jail.
Along the tour, Larry opens doors to closets and cabinets, exposing wires and equipment that’s been modified to keep working, explaining the purpose and reason for each. The computer server room would be any IT person’s worst nightmare with cords and wires crisscrossing about. The laundry room barely holds one washer and dryer. Things are stored where storage can be found. There’s really no rhyme or reason, but the layout apparently works, as staff is making do with what they have.
The cells upstairs are very dark, some even reminiscent of the one Otis used to lock himself into on the “Andy Griffith Show.” Larry points out problems with design and location of stairs, one set in particular where he explains the jail staff keeps the downstairs door locked for fear if it is opened, the upstairs walkway might collapse. He points to problems on the flat roof on our way back down another set of stairs where we land just outside the kitchen. A true maze.
I can only encourage those who are on the fence about this tax proposal to schedule of tour of the facility. Scheduling it won’t make employees modify the way it looks before you arrive. Crews from HGTV couldn’t do that. It will just help them make sure staff is available and not dealing with inmates and court. They do have work that still has to be done – even in these conditions.
I have heard and read comments on both sides of this issue, and talked with people who are for and against it. There are always people on both sides of any ballot measure and this case should be no different. People have a right to express their views and voting gives us the right to make our views known.
It’s really pretty simple. Vote for a tax that everyone pays and SFC gets a new county jail. Vote against it and we’ve been warned. The current county jail will be converted into a lockup facility by the end of July 2020 if there is no plan in place to correct the problems. Costs will soar, as will crime rates over time. We will become one of those Delta communities that we’ve seen decline so pitifully over the years.
However, I believe that common sense at some point has to come into play. Tour the jail and see if your basic common sense doesn’t tell you a new one is needed. Then, take that common sense with you, your conscience and your vote to the polls.
A new jail is not going to fix all of our problems in SFC, but maybe could be a start.