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This is the first in a series of specific profiles in the community on people who support or oppose the initiative to pass a one-cent sales tax for funding public safety and quality of life projects in Jonesboro. We want all to voice their opinion. You may send us yours, which we may publish, by clicking here. Please include your name and town at the end of your message.
JONESBORO, Ark. – Police Chief Rick Elliott wants to see Jonesboro pass a one-cent sales tax, backed by the Team Jonesboro group, because emergency service capabilities have fallen behind with Jonesboro’s growth and the city is draining reserve funding just to keep up with current needs.
“In regards to Team Jonesboro and the proposed one cent sales tax, I am obviously for it – all the way around,” Elliott told NEA Report on Monday. “It is about quality of life for Jonesboro. Of course, police and fire on the public safety side of the house but on the other side, the amenities side, too.”
Jonesboro has experienced strong growth in the past decade and the police department has struggled to keep the crime rate from exploding. While 15,000 people moved here in the past 10 years, over 65-percent of Jonesboro’s growth has been below the poverty rate since 2012. Household income has dropped four-percent from 2012-2016, according to U.S. Census Bureau Data. The poverty rate is 20-percent, compared to 16-percent for Arkansas and 12-percent for the US.
City leaders, including the few who are above Elliott, say that crime is down but that is little more than wordplay. An extensive article last fall on NEA Report shows violent crime happens in Jonesboro at some of the highest rates in America. Universally, neighborhood rating systems agree on this. It’s not news that is likely to make a business owner want to move his family here which is why it is not as often discussed but it’s a reality for residents who hear gunshots on a weekly (or nightly) basis.
This isn’t a problem that gets solved without action. As Elliott described his police force, action is already needed.
“On the police end, we’re at a point in time in the department where I need manpower,” Elliott said. “We’ve done all we can do with the people we’ve got. In the past 10 years, the city has grown 15,000 people. It’s been steadily on the rise and I’ve not kept up in manpower. Between it and the accidents – 250 a month – sometimes, our resources get limited. I don’t want ‘customer service,’ as one would say, to be affected to not have the manpower to get to your call because of the shortage.”
Pro-active police work is one of Elliott’s goals but that’s less possible when staff shortages exist and it isn’t just staffing that has suffered from funding, he said. Equipment has fallen behind in several ways which would be supported by the one-percent sales tax (half of which goes to public safety). He described SWAT team equipment and upgrades, forensic services by the Internet Crimes Against Children unit, and vehicle fleet maintenance and purchasing. Elliott said he’s supposed to buy 15 police cars each year and this year, he will be able to purchase only five. More older vehicles will eventually mean more financial requirements for repairs.
“We’re digging ourselves in a hole,” Elliott said.
Notably, a major need is the county’s radio equipment. It is past the end of its life cycle, Elliott said. Motorola no longer services the 365 radios which Elliott’s department needs. Replacements aren’t cheap, either. He estimated $3,500 per radio would need to be spent, costing $1.2 million for his group, alone. More radios would be needed for other responders and then tower upgrades would also need to be made. The chief said it could cost as much as $8 million overall to upgrade radio equipment by the city and that must be spent, whether from a new tax or by taking funding from other city services. Elliott said emergency services always come out of a city’s budget first.
“When the city has X amount of dollars, since emergency services must be provided for first, any type of project like sidewalks or other things general fund would go toward for improvements, then you’re going to start taking from those,” Elliott said.
Some capital improvements might also be allowed with added funding. Elliott said he would like to see the aging Justice Complex building, on Washington Avenue near downtown, torn down.
He also mentioned additions built on to the police station on Caraway Road, if possible. Even with what growth the department has had, he said he was running out of room.
“I’m trying to lead the department into the future,” Elliott said. “It’s going to take this to get where the department needs to be in ten plus years from now. The city will continue to grow and when you don’t have place to put additional people, what do you do? If the tax becomes available, it will give us the opportunity to make capital improvements we will need for public services.”
Funding for the police chief is about necessary expenses, he said. If enough join Team Jonesboro, he hopes to be able to maintain current services while allowing for the occasional modest upgrade.
“I don’t need a helicopter,” Elliott said. “I don’t need an airplane. It’s about necessities. It’s day to day necessities. I need building, I need people and I need equipment to run daily operation. That’s what I need and that’s what I’m looking at.”