It appears the ongoing struggle to balance the numbers has some on the Claiborne Budget Committee a bit testy. The meeting last week became contentious, with arrows flying not at one another on the board, but aimed at the Claiborne Progress.
A couple of the committee members took exception to coverage of the previous budget meeting, saying certain quotes were misleading, “taken out of context” and downright incorrect.
A county resident addressed certain information published in the newspaper concerning the last committee meeting. He read a substantial section of the article aloud pertaining to the budget shortfall.
Commissioner Shawn Peters, who is also a member of the budget committee, said the quotes attributed to him were essentially correct but “taken out of context.”
It is true, he said, that the county is looking at a minimum $500,000 deficit if nothing is cut from the budget.
“It looks like we’re going to have (a fund balance of) $184,000 at the end – that’s with zero prisoner revenue.
“If we don’t raise taxes – which we don’t have to, I’ll say that, we don’t have to – what can we cut? There’s a little we can cut. We cannot touch salaries. We cannot touch the school system. There are a lot of funds that, because of maintenance of effort, we simply have no way of touching, by state statute,” said Peters.
The resident then questioned the whereabouts of the revenue funds received via the housing of the discretionary prisoners.
“We’ve kept the government running. It went to general funding. That is why we have not had a property tax increase,” said Peters.
Second district commissioner Bill Keck, who is also a member of both the jail and budget committees, joined the discussion.
“Let’s put it this way, what you read in the papers – they just get highlights of what was said. (The) $170,000 that (the newspaper says) we passed for (CCSO) vehicles last month was not even discussed – its $180,000, is what they’re wanting. We didn’t even bring that up because we know there’s a shortfall. The paper says we passed it, last month,” said Keck, adding he did not like what was reported in the newspaper, as well.
Keck said that, for the past four to five years, he did not vote in favor of the new fiscal year budget.
“You know why, (because) they’re spending five to seven or eight hundred thousand more (dollars) than they’re bringing in. And, we had over $4 million five years ago in the budget and with a shortfall…,” said Keck.
After a bit more discussion, the committee called for a break. When the meeting resumed, the members eventually agreed to a continuing Plan of Action to delay the probable de-certification of the Claiborne County Jail.
Claiborne County Sheriff David Ray spent a bit of time earlier in the meeting addressing his ‘take’ on the possible de-certification. He detailed the trustee program, in which some 50 qualifying state inmates, currently lodged in the jail, participate.
Ray said those prisoners are hand-picked with certain criteria to ensure public safety while they conduct “free labor” in and around the Justice Center, for the litter and other county programs and for nonprofits like the Claiborne Animal Shelter and various local churches.
If the jail is de-certified and all state prisoners are removed, Ray said his department would have a remaining pool of inmates made up largely of sex and domestic violence offenders, those who are in jail for driving under the influence, those in violation of orders of protection and for nonpayment of child support.
“It creates a problem for who we are going to trust to send to the courthouse. Who are we going to trust to cook? Shall I ask (the county commission) for three more cooks in our kitchen? Shall I ask for four people to help mow the lawn and clean the Justice Center? That effectively shuts down the trustee program,” said Ray.
He addressed Keck’s idea to do away with the federal contract to house 30 prisoners, effectively reducing revenues by a minimum $660,000 per year.
The jail routinely houses more federal prisoners than contracted. According to Keck, the jail has housed from 44 to 53 federal inmates in the last few months – possibly freeing more beds but, at the same time, further reducing revenues.
Ray then turned to liability issues.
“Any lawyer will tell you that, when you have a de-certified jail for any period of time, that becomes a liability. If you think it doesn’t, you read the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution and see what it says the responsibility of this county (commission) is in maintaining and building a jail facility,” said Ray.
The sheriff requested more than once during the meeting that the committee give him “something” he could offer the Tennessee Corrections Institute (TCI) Control Board to prove the county is moving forward with ‘measurable progress’ to remedy the jail overcrowding.
The budget committee eventually decided to go with a suggestion, offered by county resident Joe Brooks, to contract with the state for just 50 of its prisoners. That way, the trustee program might be kept alive. Brooks’ suggestion was to also accept Keck’s idea and do away with the federal inmate contract, in its entirety.
Ray said he was unsure whether the state would agree to contract with the county for a specific number of prisoners.
If the jail is de-certified, it is expected the state will remove their prisoners in an expedient manner. Peters commented on the state’s current unwillingness to transfer its inmates, upon request.
“What confuses me so much about this is that the state is not willing to take enough off our hands to get the numbers down to where we can still be certified. But, the second we become non-certified, they are willing to take them all off (our hands). That’s what does not make a bit of sense to me. It’s kind of like they’re blackmailing us to say ‘we’ll build a jail’,” said Peters.
Keck questioned the ease with which other counties can get their state prisoners transferred. Ray had no clear answer.
The county can eliminate the federal prisoner agreement, Ray said, with a 45-day notice.
As of press time, the full Claiborne Commission was expected to vote on the Keck/Brooks proposal during its regular monthly meeting on Monday evening.
Writer’s Note: The Claiborne Progress strives to bring local news to its readers in a fair, balanced and correct way. To that end, reporters routinely record important meetings for later playback while composing their pieces. Due to space limitations, reporters cannot share every sentence spoken during such meetings and must report only the most urgent aspects of the discussions via paraphrasing, indirect and direct quotes. Reach Jan Runions at 423-254-5588 or on Twitter @scribeCP.