BENTON COUNTY, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — There are two sales tax items on the Benton County ballot that would go toward expanding the Benton County jail.
According to Benton County Judge, Barry Moehring, the two separate items go hand in hand. One ballot measure is a 0.25% sales tax for bonds that would be used for the construction of the new jail. The other measure is a 0.125% sales tax for maintenance, operations and other expenses related to the jail.
“We need them both to pass because one would allow us to build the jail and then the other would give us the opportunity to operate the jail. So, one without the other would be a very difficult situation for us,” said Moehring.
In a recent report from the Benton County Criminal Justice Facility, the average weekly population has been over the maximum capacity allowed by jail standards since September 2021.
The report mentioned the jail was holding more violent inmates and not holding non-violent or misdemeanor inmates because it didn’t have the room. Moehring said the jail was built and designed almost three decades ago and another facility is needed along with the jail that is currently in use.
Moehring attributes the increase in needed space to the growing Northwest Arkansas community.
“We don’t have an increase in our crime rate, but we do have an increase in the stress on our criminal justice system, just by virtue, of the number of people being here. What that means is on any given night, we have inmates sleeping in what we call boats that are on the floor of the jail. So, cutting out the problem is really important,” said Moehring.
A part of the expansion, if it passes, will be a mental health center. Moehring said there isn’t a mental health center right now. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the county realized how important mental health centers would be. He said there are many inmates struggling with mental issues that aren’t getting the care they need.
“We’ll have a medical and mental health center in this facility that we don’t have today. We’ll have room for programs where we can treat people who have substance abuse problems, crisis intervention kinds of problems to precipitate recidivism and to help people who are having a habitual problem with crime,” said Moehring.
One of the biggest complaints about the sales tax measures is that it will be more money to pay at a time when inflation is a major concern to Arkansans. Moehring acknowledged that sales tax increases are always hard, but he’s worried about what will happen if the measures don’t pass.
“It’s three-eighths of a cent sales tax, which nobody likes, I get that. I don’t like it either, but it’s about $3.75 on $1,000. Again, I don’t want to minimize it, but it is a relatively small price to pay compared to the price that we will all pay if we don’t take care of our public safety going forward,” said Moehring.
Moehring encourages voters to read up on the ballot initiatives before they head to the polls for the midterm election.
The current sales tax for Benton County is 1%. If both initiatives pass, the total county sales tax will be 1.375%.