Jail Budget more than half a million short

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By Calen McKinney

This year's jail budget is expected to fall about $600,000 short, and possible solutions to the problem could affect every Taylor County resident where it hurts most - in their wallets.

The Fiscal Court's Budget, Audits and Personnel Committee met Monday night to discuss the 2009-2010 jail budget.

After a short discussion, the Committee considered five possible options to combat the shortfall:

- Do nothing, which Magistrate James Jones described as not a legitimate option.

- Raise the occupational tax rate.

- Add an insurance premium tax, which the City already has.

- Add a sunset tax that would be lifted once enough money is raised.

- Break the occupational tax agreement with the City.

The Committee is made up of Jones and John Gaines. Also attending Monday night were Taylor County Judge/Executive Eddie Rogers, County Attorney Craig Cox, Taylor County Jailer Rick Benningfield and, by Jones' and Gaines' request, the remaining four magistrates - Milford Lowe, Richard Phillips, Ed Gorin and Matt Pendleton.

Rogers announced at the beginning of the meeting that the upcoming jail budget will fall $596,431 short of being balanced, and the meeting was called to discuss what to do about the shortfall.

Jones said state law requires that counties pay for prisoner transportation and housing, which has risen in cost from about $300,000 each year in 2002 to nearly $1 million last year.

He said that even though the Taylor County Detention Center is currently nearing capacity, a shortfall in funds to operate the jail is still expected - even with a $1 million annual contribution from the County's general fund.

"Our County budget is strained and cannot transfer any more funds to the Taylor County Detention Center," Jones said.

He said the County's budget is at its "bare bones" because of the economic recession. This resulted in less occupational tax revenue because of the loss of local businesses and jobs.

"The County doesn't have many ways to bring in revenue," Jones said. "If we've got other options, let's hear them."

The majority of the County's income, he said, comes from occupational tax dollars, which is split with the City.

Benningfield said a way the jail can produce more revenue is by adding 20 more beds when it becomes completely full, which he says the jail already has room for. He said he could also use some beds, now slated for women, to house male state inmates. Four staff members have also been cut in the jail's 2009-2010 budget.

Cox asked if some jail employees could transfer from full-time status to part-time status, which would save the County salary and benefit costs, or if any other County departments could be furloughed.

Gaines said he isn't sure how that can be done without cutting County services.

"You can't cut services to the people," he said.

Pendleton said he isn't in favor of any additional taxes.

"I'm not either, Matt," Gaines said. "But it's got to balance."

Gaines said he has heard some people ask if the County should just close the jail. If they do that, he said, the County would still be responsible for paying for the cost of building the jail and to transport Taylor County's inmates.

"I would have never voted on a jail if I didn't think it would fly," he said. "It can't be undone."

Whatever is done, Rogers said, it should be agreed upon by the entire Court.

"We have very few options," he said. "Whatever we do, we need to do it as a group. This is everybody's problem."

Gaines agreed and said if someone votes against the Committee's recommendation, he wants to know what that person has planned to make up the shortfall.

There was little discussion in response to the five options Jones presented.

Phillips and Lowe said they were both "just listening" to the discussion and Gorin said he is waiting to consider the Committee's recommendation.

"It's sad that we have to come to this point of discussion and we're all closed mouthed," Rogers said.

He said the County's finances were made worse when it borrowed a million dollars to pay for jail startup costs.

"We should have bit the bullet right then."

On Tuesday, Jones said the Committee will meet again before the Court's March regular meeting on Tuesday to vote on a recommendation.

Campbellsville Mayor Brenda Allen said on Tuesday that if the County breaks the occupational tax agreement with the City, she's not sure how the City will be able to operate Campbellsville/Taylor County Rescue and the E-911 center as it is now.

"We use the occupational tax to supplement all of our departments," she said.

"It would have a devastating effect on the City," she said. "In fact, I don't know how we would operate without it."

- Staff Writer Calen McKinney can be reached at 465-8111 Ext. 235 or by e-mail at reporter@cknj.com. Comment on this story at www.cknj.com.