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Friday, May 6, 2016

Cost to close Lawrence County jail stressing county budget

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Lawrence County jail, on the northeast corner of the square in Mt. Vernon. [Times Photo by Murray Bishoff]
Nearly three months after the Lawrence County Jail was closed due to maintenance problems and a lack of security, the Lawrence County Commission has issued its first statements on the jail situation and the ongoing financial demands created by the jail closure.

At the request of The Monett Times, commissioners responded to a series of questions. According to Presiding Commissioner Sam Goodman, he as well as Western Commissioner Rodney Barnes and Eastern Commissioner Joe Ruscha each prepared answers to the questions, and the results were then compiled.

Since a prisoner escape on July 25 forced the jail to be closed, approximately $136,000 in additional funds have been spent. Money to date has come out of the jail budget and funds managed by the sheriff. Commissioners also expect to dip into reserves.

"Even with Sheriff Brad DeLay agreeing to use his funds of over $120,000, we will have to revise the budget or use emergency funds or possibly both," the commissioners stated.

"The totals are not in, but it will be a severe blow to the budget. However, with our conservative budget policies of the past and the sheriff's willingness to tap his various discretionary funds, we think it will be managed."

The commissioners did not expect to recoup jail expenses.

"However, this situation may be viewed as a mixed blessing," they continued. "By updating the present jail facility, the need for a new facility will be postponed. Lawrence County has a sales tax, which will sunset when the Justice Center is paid off. The commission had been considering asking the voters to renew this tax when it sunsets in about six years as a way to finance a new jail. As the jail is now being updated, it should serve the county's needs for at least as long as it has since it was built in 1989.

"In addition to putting off the need for a new jail, the county has reduced inmate numbers because prisoners are pleading out and being sent to the state's prison. It appears that at other facilities, where inmates have been sent, the conditions are not as desirable as they have been at Lawrence County. Prisoners who have been in jail in Lawrence County for extended periods of time now prefer to plead and go to State Prison rather than stay in jails outside Lawrence County," the commissioners stated.

With a 9 percent reduction in sales tax income this year and the jail expenditures, commissioners said they were looking at other ways to cut county expenses overall in the future.

"If the jail remains closed until 2010, the figure could approach $500,000 for repairs, updates and housing of prisoners," the commissioners stated.

The necessity for quick action further impacted expenses.

"The commission was informed in the early morning of their meeting on July 29 that a riot at the jail had caused serious damage. We were told the decision had been made to close the jail immediately due to public and employee safety concerns. At that time we were advised that the closing should be for 30 to 60 days and would cost Lawrence County around $100,000. We were informed that some prisoners had already been removed and a bus was waiting to transport remaining prisoners to Greene County. At that point we had no other options."

Many surrounding counties offered help as the situation developed, the commissioners said. Jasper County was cited for being particularly helpful and Greene County was very cooperative, receiving around three-quarters of Lawrence County's prisoners. As time progressed, the financial stress of the situation compounded.

"The cost of housing these prisoners from Greene County alone exceeded $41,000 for the month of September. This is putting a severe drain on money the commission had reserved for the upcoming repairs that are going to be needed for the courthouse, jail and jail facility (that houses detectives). In addition, the courthouse is going to need a costly new roof in the near future.

"We could have saved money with a good plan," the commissioners continued, "by advertising and bidding all projects instead of going into emergency mode. It may have been possible to keep the jail partially open and continue to house the less violent offenders. We continously encourage the sheriff to reopen the jail as soon as possible to cut costs."

An effort has been made over the years to address serious maintenance issues at the jail. No requests for serious action were made in the past two years, the commissioners said.

"Over the last several years, we have been informed of various jail issues. At each time, the commission asked the jail supervisor for estimated costs so we could budget as much as possible and make the incremental repairs based on levels of need. The commission budgeted an estimated amount of $15,000 for jail maintenance and another $30,000 for repairs.

At the time the jail was closed, $15,432 had been spent for maintenance and none of the $30,000 had been spent for repairs. Locks had been repaired periodically through 2006. There was no expenditure on locks in 2007 and 2008.

"The commission is responsible for maintaining the buildings and grounds while the sheriff is responsible for managing the jail. The commission relies on the sheriff for input on what is needed to keep the jail operational," the commissioners said.


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