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Central Arkansas mayors voice concern over jail reimbursement rates

Pulaski County Jail
The Pulaski County Jail is seen in this file photo from 2015.

Pulaski County officials say a software system is to blame for errors in charging cities for holding detainees at the county jail.

City officials say the county’s computer system often duplicates charges and over-counts the number of days spent by inmates in the Pulaski County Regional Detention Facility. Cities then face the choice of paying too much for jail services, or spending time and money on attempting to correct mistakes.

Representatives from the county and several central Arkansas cities discussed the issue in a meeting of the Pulaski County Intergovernmental Cooperation Council on Tuesday. City of North Little Rock CFO Ember Strange said she’s received over $130,000 in erroneous charges from the jail in one year alone.

“If I send you a bill from North Little Rock for $100,000, which I did… you didn’t just pay it, you sent it back and said ‘What’s this for? We didn’t agree to this.’ And that’s exactly what we’re doing on this, we’re saying ‘What’s this for?’ and we’re just trying to validate it,” she said.

Strange and others said the county’s computer system often confuses warrants coming from different cities, requiring each separate municipality to pay full price for a jail stay, regardless of which agency arrests the person. Maumelle Mayor Caleb Norris said that’s having an impact on their police department’s staffing levels, requiring officers to spend more time correcting mistakes in jail billing than their actual law enforcement duties.

“Maybe that person was arrested for murder, but they also had a warrant for speeding out of a different jurisdiction. So they get held for a long period of time, and the city with the speeding charge is getting charged thousands of dollars to hold someone with a speeding warrant,” he said.

Norris spoke against the county’s practice of charging cities for jail use by the day, rather than a yearly flat fee. Pulaski County Judge Barry Hyde said he understands the argument, but that paying on a day-by-day basis helps cities avoid potentially overpaying for jail services amid “skyrocketing” costs and rising inmate numbers. Sherwood Mayor Mary Jo Heye-Townsell said the county’s system can sometimes charge cities for housing a detainee for multiple days, when in reality, they were only in jail for a few hours.

“So somebody can only be there for a couple of hours, but they’re being charged 48 hours’ worth of charges. You can have a full day of one bed four times over, so there’s a lot of confusion,” Heye-Townsell said. “We’ve been asking to see what’s making up these charges, how is all this working, and we’re just not getting anywhere.”

Hyde says the county is in the process of implementing a new software system which will hopefully cut down on some of the errors. But, Heye-Townsell said cities have been promised that for some time.

“Repeatedly we have been told that there are going to be updates and software, that you’re going to be able to see real-time, and it just never gets done,” she said. “So you end up with somebody who’s [detained] on a minor charge that we would release, only they’re in there for 30 days because we can’t see what’s going on.”

“The hope is that once we accomplish that with LRPD and NLRPD that that will be the model for other cities… it’ll bring the operating systems of the jail and law enforcement in Pulaski County into real-time communication,” Hyde responded, estimating the new software to begin operations in three to six months.

When asked, Maumelle Mayor Caleb Norris called that timeline “extremely ambitious.”

Daniel Breen is News Director of Little Rock Public Radio.