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Jackson County changes plans, moves location of new jail

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JACKSON COUNTY, AR (KAIT) – Voters helped avoid what officials called a potential financial crisis in Jackson County.

In February they overwhelmingly approved two sales tax increases – each worth three-eighths of a cent – to fund construction and maintenance of a new jail after the state threatened to close the county detention center for numerous violations.

County officials expected construction on the new jail to start this fall, but a recent change in plans has caused delays and pushed back the start date. Initially, the new facility was to be built next to the old one, but now officials have decided to relocate it to a place that they say is better for space and security.

The idea emerged a few weeks ago to find a different location for the new Jackson County jail. Jeff Phillips, the county judge, says price forced the county to abandon its plans to build the new 100-bed, $8 million facility next to the current detention center in downtown Newport.

The Newport economic development director then helped the county look for some other potential sites, including a four-acre vacant lot east of town near the Newport Airport. Phillips says the county got the land for free after a swap with the local industrial development bond board.

"It's not going to cost us any money," Phillips said. "Plus, it'll save us on having to move all those utilities off that lot. They were going to have to tear the streets up and relocate everything, so that is going to help."

The county judge says this new location gives more space for the jail, which has reopened the possibility of putting a garden on the grounds.

"We got the idea that if we could get more property, have a big garden and that would help with food costs," Phillips explained.

Moving the jail out of a residential area will help tighten security, too, according to Sheriff David Lucas.

"People will tend to throw stuff over the fence and get contraband onto the grounds," Lucas said. "We won't have that out there."

One con, though, is the distance. The new jail will be located about eight miles from the Jackson County Courthouse in Newport, which raised concerns about transportation costs. Lucas, however, said the county already has a solution.

"We're going to implement video arraignment at the new facility, which will cut down on a lot of transports that we normally do now," Lucas said, "so it's not really going to be that bad of an issue for us.

"I've already spoken with two of our judges, and they're all for that," he added. "Not only does the video arraignment take care of issues as far as security for transports, but it also takes care of courtroom security issues where we don't have all of the inmates over there that we normally have."

Phillips said county officials have also spoken to some of the nearby business owners about the proposed new facility as well as the chancellor of the Arkansas State University campus in Newport, which is located across a field from the site. He claims they all supported the idea because it will provide an added police presence to the area.

Moving the facility to this new site will mean a few minor changes to the design. County officials now hope to break ground on the project in April 2014, with a completion date set for sometime in 2015.

The county also began collecting revenue from the two new sales taxes this summer. So far, the Jackson County treasurer's office has only gotten numbers back from July and August.

The treasurer reported that in July, the sales taxes generated $122,887.51; however, the following month brought a noticeable bump. In August, the revenue totaled $132,045.53. County officials suspect the opening of the newer, larger Wal-Mart in Newport is responsible for the spike.

"It really has helped because the more revenue we generate, the more we will be able to pay off the jail sooner," Phillips said. "That's our main goal is get the jail built, get it open and pay it off as soon as we can."

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