Jefferson County Sheriff Gerald Robinson said Thursday that a shortfall in funds to cover salaries and benefits for the adult jail and juvenile detention center occurred because those agencies did not receive all the money they needed to operate at the beginning of the year.
Robinson, Chief Deputy Sheriff and Jail Administrator Greg Bolin, Operations Commander Major Lafayette Woods Jr., and Chris Brown, the office manager for the sheriff’s department, sat down with a reporter to discuss the shortages, which on Wednesday prompted County Judge Dutch King to call for a state audit.
“We sent a budget of $4.5 million for the adult jail because that’s what it has been almost every year since it opened,” Bolin said.
The 2013 budget that was approved in March gave the adult jail just over $3.5 million.
On Monday, the Quorum Court approved a 2014 budget of $3,818,966 for the adult jail.
“Since the prison reform act, the jail has been full,” Robinson said. “That means the cost of food has gone up, medicine has gone up, electricity has gone up, things we can’t control.”
Bolin said that with more than 300 prisoners a day, means cooks have to prepare more than 900 meals daily.
“We have no choice constitutionally. We have to have a jail,” Robinson said. “We can’t control the costs.”
Before the opening of the jail in 2007, deputies were transporting prisoners to other jails in Southeast Arkansas, and Bolin said the Quorum Court was being asked on an almost monthly basis to approve supplemental appropriations of $10,000 to $20,000 to cover expenses.
“I think the Quorum Court has lost sight of that,” Woods said. “The jail is a necessary evil. We’ve got to have it. It’s not our fault the population has declined and we’ve lost tax revenue.”
In addition, Robinson and Woods said the financial situation for the jail would be better if the Jefferson County District Court was not receiving money from the quarter-cent sales tax approved by county voters for jail maintenance and operations.
“I could have forced their hand and made them give the money back but I didn’t, “Robinson said, explaining that when voters approved the tax, nothing was said about funding for a district court building.
Robinson said he agreed to allow some of the tax money to be used for the initial construction of the court building by agreeing to put holding cells in it.
“The key word is initial,” Woods said. “Once the cells were in, there was no need for further money.”
In the 2014 budget approved by the Quorum Court on Monday night, the amount the Jefferson County District Court will receive from that maintenance and operations tax was cut in half, and county officials hope to be able to completely eliminate appropriations to the court from that tax revenue in the future.
Regarding that tax, Robinson said he wished the jail was still collecting the full half-cent sales tax that was initially approved for the jail, instead of just a quarter-cent. The other half-cent had a sunset clause attached and was taken off the books when the jail was paid for.
“If they had not retired that tax, we wouldn’t be having this discussion,” Robinson said. “With the declining population, at some point we are going to have to revisit that quarter-cent tax. Nobody likes to talk taxes but we’ve got to have some way to fund the jail and we can either fund it through a tax or through county general and that’s something we really don’t want to do.”
Robinson also pointed out that the adult jail has made money this year from a variety of sources, including money that state and federal authorities paid for housing prisoners, as well as booking fees, commissary and telephone use fees and the pay-for=stay fee.
According to figures collected by Brown, the jail collected $105,342.52 in November, and through the first 11 months of the year, had received $1,522,554.33 in fines, fees, and other collections. That figure was more than $20,000 above the amount the jail collected during all of 2012.
“We’re raking and scraping and trying to do everything we can to make money,” Bolin said.
On Wednesday, County Judge Dutch King approved two emergency court orders so that employees of the jail and juvenile center would get their paychecks Friday. However, concern was expressed that the county has another payday at the end of the month and there were questions about where the money to cover those paychecks would come from.
Thursday morning, Robinson said there was money in the Public Safety Sales Tax Fund and the Quorum Court could approve an appropriation to move that money into the salary accounts at a special meeting.
County Treasurer Elizabeth Rinchuso confirmed that the Public Safety Sales Tax fund contains $296,288.88.
Of that, just over $86000 is owed to Jefferson County District Court, leaving a balance of just over $210,000.
Rinchuso said it would take approximately $70,000 to pay the salaries and benefits for sheriff’s deputies whose salaries come out of the Public Safety Sales Tax, and approximately another $110,000 to pay the salaries of jail personnel.
If that was done, the tax would have a balance of approximately $30,000, and Rinchuso said that based on tax collections for the first 11 months of the year, the county could expect to receive an estimated $192,000 at the end of December.
Those funds could be used to cover the Jan. 15 payrolls if the Quorum Court agreed.
Robinson said all the county’s elected officials need to get together and discuss the budget shortfalls, and be prepared to “make some hard-core decisions.”
“People need to look hard at what they need to do to try and save money,” Robinson said. “We’ve all got to make sacrifices. The sheriff’s office is the biggest budget but our cars have got to roll and we can’t feed the people in the jail peanuts.
“I didn’t want this back and forth,” he said. “If the money we asked for in our budget had been approved in the first place, we wouldn’t be where we are and the Quorum Court knew that.”