Solutions for budget shortfall in public safety discussed

Getting more federal prisoners and detainees from the Arkansas Department of Youth Services would go a long way to solving an almost $500,000 shortfall predicted this year for the public safety and detention facilities sales taxes, a committee of the Jefferson County Quorum Court decided Friday.

Meeting for the second time in two weeks, the court’s Finance Committee discussed the projected shortfall, which County Treasurer Elizabeth Rinchuso has said totals just over $1.2 million for 2013.

With unused appropriation money left over from last year, that shortfall was reduced by about $700,00, leaving a balance that present money and projected revenue will not be able to cover.

Members of the committee agreed that a significant part of the problem is that in previous years, there was what Rinchuso called “a cushion” of funds left over from previous years.

“We don’t have that cushion anymore,” she said.

To emphasize the point, Rinchuso said at the end of January, the county budget was $136,000 more than anticipated revenue.

“We can’t do that,” Justice of the Peace Herman Ginger said.

The adult jail, juvenile detention center and public safety agencies are currently in the second month of a three-month budget that was approved by the Quorum Court at the same time full year budgets for other agencies and departments were approved.

Following the meeting Friday, the Finance Committee agreed to set a six-month budget for the agencies, giving them time to come up with solutions to the shortfall.

All those attending agreed that while the adult jail has been making money, the juvenile detention center has not, which resulted in supplemental appropriations each year, some totaling $400,000-500,000.

To solve that problem, County Judge Dutch King said that the juvenile center needs to work with state authorities to get more juvenile detainees.

The state Department of Youth Services pays the county $75 per day for each juvenile the center holds, and Lee Johnson, administrator of the juvenile center, said there were 11 juveniles in the facility Friday.

“There’s no quick fix, but if we can talk Little Rock into giving us more kids, we can at least break even,” King said. “That’s all we need to do.”

Sheriff Gerald Robinson said the adult jail is also trying to do its part, setting up one pod at the jail strictly for federal prisoners from the U.S. Marshal’s Service.

“If we get into a crowding problem, we’re going to try and come up with a way to solve that problem so we can leave that pod alone,” Robinson said.

The Marshal’s Service pays the county $60 per day for each prisoner held, as well as paying all the prisoner’s medical bills.

Robinson also suggested that the Quorum Court approve a pay-for-stay program for the juvenile center. The adult jail currently has the system, and inmates are charged $58.75 per day.

A proposed ordinance for that juvenile pay-for-stay will be considered by the Quorum Court on Monday if officials can get the proposal drafted in time.

Both Robinson and Sheriff’s Department Operations Commander Major Lafayette Woods Jr. said the idea of cutting people to cover the shortfall should be the last option considered.

“When we first opened the jail, we were using the minimum number of people to run it to try and increase revenue and we’re still two or three short of what we need on each shift to run a jail the size of our jail,” Robinson said. “There are slots to be filled but we’re going to make do with what we need to do.”

Ginger said that if the revenue is not increased, “it falls back on us and we’re going to cut you, but you’re not going to be the only one because we understand the words ‘shall’ and ‘may’ and operating the sheriff’s office is a ‘shall’ while a lot of other things are a ‘may.’

“Start today and get as much revenue as you can, and watch your spending,” Ginger said.

Justice of the Peace Lloyd Franklin III said all the county agencies need to start looking at ways to cut their budgets now, instead of waiting until the start of the 2014 budget process, which is traditionally in the fall.

Rinchuso agreed but said county agencies and departments have used the same budget for years and have been told to keep the numbers the same each year, so there has been no discussion of how much money was actually needed, which resulted in supplemental appropriations for many agencies and departments, some starting in January.

“We’re not going to accept supplemental appropriations,” King said. “If they can’t live within their budgets, we can’t help them.”

Ginger echoed that, saying “There will be realistic budgets this year.”