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Sullivan commissioners grapple with budget decisions amid economic shutdown

J. H. Osborne • Apr 22, 2020 at 9:30 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — One might call it a new symptom of the COVID-19 economic shutdown: budgetary cold feet.

During a budget request hearing Tuesday, several Sullivan County commissioners seemed to want to backtrack on a decision months ago that funded 10 new sheriff’s deputies for launch of a pretrial release program. That program’s aim was to relieve overcrowding at the county jail. And it has, according to numbers Sheriff Jeff Cassidy shared with members of the Sullivan County Commission’s Administrative Committee. That group met — part in person, part by teleconference, and part by online video — Tuesday afternoon to review and vote on departmental budget requests, including Cassidy’s for operation of the sheriff’s office and county jail facilities.

The crux of what some commissioners see as their dilemma: can county taxpayers endure a potential property tax increase (about 1.5 cents) to continue funding the 10 new officers for the pretrial program ($564,080 for the fiscal year that begins July 1). Citing the fact several key factors aren’t known at this point — the actual impact of the pandemic-induced economic shutdown on sales tax revenues, and how much, if any, savings will result from far fewer inmates being kept jailed — the committee voted to take no action and punt the matter to the county’s Budget Committee.

Commissioner Mark Hutton made a motion to keep the county’s budget “flat,” meaning keep each department’s funding level as approved in this year’s original budget (that would apparently not include the $564,080, which was added later). He got no second and the motion died. Hutton also mentioned actually going further and asking all departments to cut 2% from this year’s original funding level. Hutton said he is concerned about loss of county revenue due to the economic shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic — and by the loss in revenue many county taxpayers are experiencing due to lost jobs and closed businesses.

Larry Bailey, the county’s accounts and budgets director, said that as of the end of March, and even the start of this month, county sales tax and property tax revenues were coming in on or a little above what was projected for this year’s budget.

Sheriff Jeff Cassidy said the 10 officers are on the job and busy with 180 inmates already released from the jail and being monitored at their homes. Cassidy said five officers are certified to keep track of the inmates on pretrial release, and the other five are looking through files daily to identify more inmates that could be eligible for the program — in addition to sifting through new inmates coming into the jail and communicating with judges about potential releases.

Cassidy said there have been cost savings from the decrease in inmates, for example, the jail has gone from serving 2,700 or more meals a day to 1,800 meals per day, give or take. Back in November, when the commission voted to fund the pretrial release program (shortly after a $3 million federal lawsuit was filed against the county due to conditions caused by overcrowding in the jail), the county’s jail facilities were housing between 900 and 1,000 inmates some days.

On Tuesday, Cassidy said the jail had 615 inmates. That’s barely below its certified capacity. The decrease is thanks to the 180 moved to the pretrial release program, some medical furloughs granted by judges since the pandemic began and the great reduction in arrests since the pandemic began.

Cassidy warned that the current, relatively low number of inmates is temporary and will likely end as soon as the economy reopens. Cassidy compared it to “floodgates open” when the economy reopens and courts reopen and the inmate population could go right back to 850 to 900 in the very hectic months ahead.

“I figured that,” Hutton said, adding it took a pandemic to get the jail “cleared out” and to get local judges to do what needed to be done.

Hutton said he’s not against the pretrial release program, but he wants others to consider if they are willing to make cuts — including potential layoffs — to keep it and other items that require new spending.

“It’s a tough row to hoe,” Hutton said.

The Sullivan County Commission voted in November to spend $817,000 to get the program up and running for the rest of this budget year (that money came from the county’s fund balance); and it was known that it would cost an estimated $564,800 per year in recurring costs beginning July 1, 2020.

Hutton said he voted in favor of funding the program in December, “but things have changed since December.”

The sheriff doesn’t have the authority to release inmates, even into a pretrial program. That has to be approved by a judge.

Sullivan County came close to losing state certification for its jails — a move that would cause a loss of state funding and potentially put county taxpayers on the hook to pay for ensuing lawsuits — in 2014. It has been allowed to maintain its certification only because the county has been able to show it is working toward a solution to ongoing overcrowding.

Sullivan County taxpayers could be footing the bill for anywhere from $69.3 million to $168.4 million for new and/or renovated jail facilities, based on a presentation from a consulting firm hired to study how to solve the overcrowding problem. And that’s in today’s dollars. With an estimated completion time of three years out, or more, the estimated cost could rise by the time construction takes place.

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