When my wife, Karen recently had a major consulting contract slashed in half, we had two choices. We could 1) go through our entire savings in order to maintain our current lifestyle and house mortgage, or 2) we could downsize and live within our means. We chose to downsize. We have sold our home and are auctioning off most of its contents. It is painful, but it focuses on a long-term solution and not a short-term ‘quick fix’ solution.
Ironically, we are faced with the same challenge in the jail -- the operating budget is not sufficient to maintain the jail. This isn’t something new; I have pleaded my case to the Quorum Court for the past four years, yet we continue to be $140,000 in the red each year. We rob Peter to pay Paul by ‘borrowing’ funds from the next year’s budget. You and I both know that isn’t a sustainable business model.
How did we get here? I want you to use your imagination for a moment. What if you had to move into a new home that is three times larger than your current home and you suddenly had to support a new family of eight who moved into the house with you – yet you are receiving the same paycheck you had before this move. There would be higher insurance costs, utilities, food, medical expenses, even more toilet paper. No matter how hard you tried to scrimp and save, you would be faced with a budget crisis, wouldn’t you?
Welcome to the world of the Baxter County Sheriff’s Office and the Detention Center. In 2004, a new detention center was built to service all of the law enforcement agencies in Baxter County (this was prior to my first term in office in 2005). This detention center was paid for from the sale of the county-owned hospital. A good move because the detention center was paid for, however, no additional funding was provided to actually run the new larger detention center. Unlike most counties who also passed a sales tax to run their new larger jail, Baxter County officials did not put any funding mechanism in place to run a facility that is more than three times the size with an inmate population that has doubled.
In the fall of 2011, the Quorum Court once again chose not to fund the $140,000 budget shortfall and had us take money from the following year’s budget. Because the Court did not have a long-term funding solution and it did not appear that they would address the looming crisis, I took a very bold and risky step and asked the voters of Baxter County for help. I aggressively campaigned for a ¼ cent sales tax – I spoke to over 58 different organizations, I conducted 11 radio programs, and Karen made an informative video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=89DqXmGroAE) which was sent to 3,000+ people and was on the Sheriff’s website. I did my best to inform the voters of the dire situation, but the voters have spoken. They are not in favor of a ¼ cent sales tax as a source of revenue for the jail.
On December 4, the Quorum Court again did not address the budget shortfall in the jail. They passed the same tax levy creating no additional funding to the County and also passed the same level of funding for the 2013 jail budget which is projected to have a shortfall of $138,000.
This means we have to cut the budget expenses in order to live within our means. Just as it is painful when you have to cut your household expenses to make ends meet, we have some painful decisions to make in the jail especially when it comes to the inmates.
By law, we CANNOT refuse to take an inmate unless the jail is at capacity or there are no beds available. It doesn’t matter if they have expensive medical conditions (did you know that once a person is incarcerated all Medicare, Medicaid and VA benefits stop and the County must pay for all doctor, hospital and medication costs)? We are required by law to house, feed, clothe, take care of medically and guard all inmates and we have to take them if there is a bed available.
Since we don’t have the funding and we must live within our means, the only logical answer is to reduce the number of inmates to reduce the cost to house them. Yet due to the law, the only way to reduce the inmate population is to limit the number of beds we have in our jail.
We cannot physically leave the beds in the jail and simply say they don’t exist -- they have to be removed in order to not be counted. While cutting out 58 beds may seem radical, it is the only logical way to make the reduction. If we close off two of our jail pods to eliminate 44 beds, it means we would have to cram all male inmates into one jail pod or cell. Obviously, that is a disaster waiting to happen, and it prevents us from conforming to the mandatory classification system which separates certain inmates. The only legal and practical way is to physically remove the beds.
This has been the most excruciating decision in my eight years as Sheriff. I am fully aware of the impact to the community. Certain inmates will be released and all pre-trial misdemeanor inmates will not be housed; other law enforcement agencies will not have a place to take the person they arrest if our jail is full. But we have no choice but to live within our means.
We began a few days ago removing the beds. We have to actually cut them off of the wall and are carefully removing them so the beds can be welded back at some time in the future if the funding issue is ever resolved.
We have no choice but to make these drastic cuts along with many others to address the $140,000 shortfall in 2013. We’ve had to cut many services in the Sheriff’s Office, such as reducing the patrol mileage from 250 to 75 miles per night (which means our deputies respond to emergency or urgent calls only). We’ve had to eliminate business and vacation watch programs, ground the Sheriff’s Helicopter and Water Safety Boat Patrol and we’ve notified the three school systems that after May we will no longer be able to provide School Resource Officers in their schools.
I wish there was an answer that was pleasing to everyone but the bottom line is we, the Baxter County Sheriff’s Office have to live within our means, just like you.
Sheriff John Montgomery