BENTONVILLE -- A $20 booking and administrative fee to defray costs at the Benton County Jail could have been collected as soon as the fee became law in February, said Rep. Bill Sample, R-Hot Springs.

"They should be able to collect it now," said Sample, who sponsored the bill that implemented the $20 fee.

Act 117 became law upon the governor's signature Feb. 16. Sample said $20 will be charged to offenders with a felony or Class A misdemeanor conviction. The fee is assessed upon conviction and is included in the court judgment with the money going to the Quorum Court.

Benton County Finance Committee approved sending an ordinance to approve the $20 fee to the Committee of 13 earlier this month. Because the act is state law, no ordinance is needed, Sample said.

The committee also approved a $5 fee for traffic violations at the same time.

Counties became eligible to add $5 to traffic citations when the state law was updated in 2003. Previously, only towns and cities could add the fee.

If passed by the Quorum Court, anyone cited in the county for traffic violations, such as driving while intoxicated, speeding or crossing the yellow line, would have the $5 fee added as court costs, even if the issuing officer was from a city, said Sheriff Keith Ferguson. Cities may also add a $5 fee by adopting an ordinance, which would raise the fee to $10, he said.

Only Siloam Springs charges the $5 fee currently, said Benton County Treasurer Deanna Ratcliffe. Ferguson said several counties already collect the $5 fee, including Washington, Izard, Garland and Crawford counties.

Washington County added the $5 fee in May 2005, said Washington County Treasurer Roger Haney. The fee is levied at the same time as other court costs.

Washington County earned $167,000 from the fee last year and is on track for earning about the same this year, Haney said. From January to May, the county received $71,693. That money goes to a separate jail fund for operation or maintenance, Haney said.

"Any money we get for operational expenses is a help, and you don't have to make it up with taxpayers' (money)," he said. "If we didn't have that money, we'd have to possibly look at tax increases."

Ferguson guessed traffic citations could bring in between $60,000 and $70,000 per year in Benton County.

The benefit of adding $5 to tickets is twofold, he said. Needed money is raised for the jail, and the extra $5 may deter people from driving recklessly, Ferguson said.

As long as the money is needed, the $5 and $20 fees are good ways to generate money, said Chuck Lange, executive director of the Arkansas Sheriffs' Association. The $5 fee shouldn't be added just because, he said.

However, as the cost of incarcerating continues to climb, along with gasoline prices, jails will need more money to build and operate, Lange said.

"Some counties struggle every day to keep the doors locked to keep people in," Lange said. "The money has got to come from some place."

Crowding at the Benton County Jail is a problem, Ferguson said. He proposed building a $2 million building to house about 150 nonviolent inmates, instead of a $16-million jail pod. The building may prevent overcrowding for five years, but justices of the peace worried the county lacked money to fund salaries for about 30 new jail employees.

"We actually have the money to actually build it, but we don't have the money to actually operate it," said Justice of the Peace Tim Summers, R-Bentonville, during the Finance Committee.

Instead of law-abiding residents paying increased taxes to keep criminals locked up, violators pay the costs for running the jail, Ferguson said.

"It's a win-win situation for everybody except the violator," he said.

Break out

At A Glance

Jail Revenue Prospects

* A $20 fee charged to convicted offenders could bring in more than $1 million to defray costs at county jails, said Chuck Lange, executive director of the Arkansas Sheriffs' Association. The fee became state law in February and can be collected by counties immediately. The money may be used to free up other county revenue that could fund a new jail extension.

* The Benton County Committee of 13 will consider tacking on a $5 fee to traffic citations during its monthly meeting at 5 p.m. Tuesday. The money generated by the fine will go toward operation and maintenance costs at the county jail.

Source: Staff Report