Thursday's Public Safety Review committee meeting ended on a conciliatory note, showing some hope for a negotiated structure for the county and cities covering expenses for the jail and 911 operations.
The committee had representatives on hand from Fairfield Bay and Clinton, including mayors Paul Wellenberger and Richard McCormac, respectively, and city council members, as well as several Quorum Court justices, as well as the Van Buren County Judge Roger Hooper. The committee is co-chaired by Justice Mary Philips and Brian Tatum. Other representatives were on hand, including police chiefs from Fairfield Bay and Clinton, as well as county Sheriff Randy Gurley, along with representatives of the 911 center and the prosecutor's office.
The discussion centered on the county 911 center and it's 2017 $146,955 budget. A limited discussion included how the center came to be located in Fairfield Bay, a decision made in 2000. It was felt at the time, the body was told, that the sheriff's office was too busy, as in noisy, and had insufficient electrical service to support a 911 center. This was coupled with finding an out-of-floodplain location in Clinton (a storefront donated at the time did not meet this requirement).
“I'm ready to take over 911 if that's what it comes down to,” Gurley told the commision.
This was quickly shut down, as the current 911 location is fixed until 2020, the commision was told.
Coupled with the budget was the need to upgrade the center's telephone equipment, a $121,000 expense, 911 head Judy Wells told the body. An FHA grant has been applied for which would provide for 35 percent of the cost.
In previous years funding, outside of grants and allocations, had been part of Fairfield Bay's yearly budget. Part of the problem is the way money is allocated for 911 expense. An important source for money for 911 operations is generated by telephone fees, assessed at $1.25 per landlines in the county, and 65 cents for each cell number in the county. Over the years, Wellenberger explained, as people have dropped landline service the amount of money provided for 911 operations has in turn dropped.
As part of Well's presentation was a proposal for shared expense between the cities and the counties for 911 expense based upon a formula. The formula divided into three units, county, Fairfield Bay and Clinton. Then the three were divided by call volume from each, with the county creating, in effect, 60 percent of the call volume, Clinton representing 19 percent and Fairfield Bay representing 21 percent.
This in turn represented $44,446 to Clinton and $49,124 to Fairfield Bay, the remainder, $146,955 to the county, after allowing for the equipment upgrade, and offset by outside funding. (Damascus and Shirley were held outside the funding calculations, due to very low call volume.)
“It's not going to feel good” Justice Dale James said about the funding formula, “we have to budget around it.”
The matter was left with consideration for an intergovernmental agreement being written up between the cities and county in order to share 911 funding.
Jail fees, a point of great contention at an earlier commision meeting, ended on a more positive note than previous times. Attorney Jeff Hall, presented to the board the results of a survey as to how other counties and cities were funding the jail.
The upshot, after a review of existing statutes, was that the cities and county could raise its current $5 per ticket jail fee to $20 per ticket - a significant increase in revenue to fund jail operations, and one currently in place in several Arkansas counties, including, notably, Faulkner County which shares a border, and at times inmates, with Van Buren County.
While some quick calculations were made to see how that would impact current funding, no declaration was made to propose raising the fees. (The commision would recommend to the Quorum Court and City Councils, it is not able to vote on its own.) Wellenberger and Hooper were especially wondering if raising ticket fees would be enough to cover jail expense.
The commission's next meeting is in May.