By Alton Porter
The Houston County Commissioners Court has met the Sheriff's Office a little under halfway, for now, by providing $30,000 of the $80,000 in funds the county law enforcement department requested to cover expenses that keep adding up at the county jail.
But, not to worry, it's possible the court will give the Sheriff's Office the rest of the of the funds it has requested.
The court voted 4-0 for a motion amending the county's budget by allocating $30,000 of the $80,000 requested by the
Sheriff's Office at its Tuesday, May 24, meeting in the court's meeting room in the County Courthouse Annex.
The successful motion was made by County Judge Erin Ford and seconded by Precinct 2 Commissioner Willie Kitchen. All commissioners present voted for the motion. Precinct 3 Commissioner Pat Perry could not attend the meeting.
The line items included in the Sheriff's Office request to amend the budget include food for inmates projected to cost $30,000 more than was included in the original budget for this year and medical services including prescription drugs expected to cost an additional $30,000 more than was budgeted.
Other projected items are wages/salaries for part-time jailers; supplies; and repairs, parts and labor, amounting to an additional $10,000 each. The $90,000 total these figures add up to is expected to be reduced by $10,000 from group medical coverage, leaving $80,000, the amount the Sheriff's Office projects that it needs in order to continue to operate the jail at the current level through the rest of the year.
Chief Deputy G.P. Shearer of the Sheriff's Office made the verbal request for the budget amendment and additional funds to the court on behalf of Sheriff Darrel Bobbitt and the Sheriff's Office.
"We are requesting additional funds," Shearer said. "Again, we came to the court at the first of the budget year requesting a lot more money than we were allocated. However, we have received some bills in the past few months that were astronomically high."
"We had a lightning strike," he said, adding, "Fortunately, insurance is going to take care of some of that. We lost a lot of equipment over there that had to be replaced. And some of that stuff is still being worked out through the insurance company. We've got additional items that are being sent over there now.
"Also, we've had ... some inmates who had some illnesses and their medication was outrageously high. And our ... health partners who we contract our medical with, that's above and beyond what they provide."
Shearer said, "We are projecting at least an additional ($30,000) in food monies," adding, "We're doing everything we can do, that we think we can do to eliminate some of the cost. We try to do all the work ourselves. If we can't do it, we have to hire out.
"The maintenance on that air conditioner is just something we just can't do. I don't have qualified personnel in the jail or on my staff to work on how to operate this air conditioning system.
Shearer said, "Things we're finding out over the course of time evolve.... We find that what we've got was a ... I think we got the raw end of the deal on some of the items that were installed at the facility.
"They low-bidded and they went to warehouse items that were obsolete, like the air conditioner (and) some of the locks on the doors. We're finding out that as time progresses, we have to fix or repair these items or replace them because they no longer manufacture that particular lock."
Shearer explained, "For a building that's four or five years old, that lock should still be in circulation, and it's not. So, we have to hire people who are experts in this lock field who happen to have a monopoly on their parts or whatever. One lock can cost ($1,500), and to me, that's just not right."
Ford said he and Shearer had talked about the problem at the jail before the meeting and the concern he had was that the problems came all at once. "There was no warning ... (or) indication that we were going to be out of $80,000 budget transfer for the funds," Ford said.
"So, what I ask for is – so we can project better – maybe help us to understand better. Go back three years and get an inmate cumulative headcount for each year so that we can determine from the budget for that year what the average unit rate was for each of the inmates and see if we're declining ... (or if we're seeing) an increase in the cost of medical, food and things like that. So, that we can at least project for the next year some means of understanding where we are because this is a huge hit."
Precinct 4 Commissioner Kennon Kellum wanted to know what the current inmate count is, and Shearer responded, "The average daily population right now is 98, and right now we're sitting at 97 or 98 (inmates in the jail) today."
Then, Kellum asked Shearer if it is true that Trinity County had pulled its inmates who had been incarcerated at the Houston County Jail, and Shearer told him that indeed is true. "Trinity County pulled their inmates and sent them over to San Jacinto County because somehow or another they are doing it (housing Trinity County's inmates) for $25 a person a day," Shearer said. "And after putting pen to paper, there's no way we could do it for that amount."
County Auditor Melissa Mosley said she had "discussed the current situation with the chief" the day before the meeting. "The $80,000 is projection on the current projections through the end of the year," she said.
"As of right now, I have to file an additional insurance claim for an additional $21,000 .... Right now, I think the budget shows (that) repair, parts and labor is way over. But we were waiting until we got all of the invoices in and it's an additional 21,000 that I'm going to try to file and get reimbursed on."
She added, "And they've also had other repair items that were not under the lightning strike. So, that's some of the expenses. Also, the supplies (line item) is over budget by a couple thousand. So, right now, to make his (the Sheriff's Office) budget even, it would be ($30,000 that's needed). But we're looking at ($80,000).
In offering his motion to allocate an additional $30,000 to the Sheriff's Office from the county's Contingency Fund, Ford urged the commissioners to take a prudent approach in resolving the matter.
"We've got time to look at this," Ford said, moving that the court "approve the funds available to keep the jail operation current." Then, he said, "we can look at it over a couple of weeks and look at what the total outlay is going to be" and other related matters.
Mosley assured Ford and the commissioners that the jail staff will be able to carry on operations as usual in the meantime while they research and study the issue, and decide what else to do. "If you're not comfortable with anything right now and you need more review," Mosley said, "their overall budget is okay. They can still operate. So, that will give you time at the next Commissioners Court" meeting to address the problem more fully.
Kitchen asked Mosley to confirm that it will take $30,000 "to make (the Sheriff's Office) whole" for now as the court studies the matter further, and she said that bottom line amount will be sufficient for now in the interim while the court is addressing the entire matter and related issues.
In other business at the meeting the commissioners voted their approval of two grants received by the Sheriff's Office. The first one is a Homeland Security grant in the amount of $35,000 for radio and communication equipment. The second one is a $5,329 grant from the Texas Association of Counties (TAC) Risk Control Reimbursement Program and is to be used to purchase equipment and develop and promote a law enforcement wellness program.