Would Starting On A New Jail
Solve Current Deficit Dilemma?
BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
The Greene County Commission has for months spoken of the Greene County Detention Center's overcrowding as a plague on the Greene County government's finances.
On Wednesday, however, the County Budget and Finance Committee pondered if building a new jail could free the county's revenue constraints enough to ease the projected $2 million deficit for 2013-2014.
"You can't sit here and let on that we don't know where this shortfall comes from," Sheriff Steve Burns said. "It's the state and federal revenue. Say it up-front! There's been no decision made to fix that problem."
Burns has emphasized in recent meetings that his detention center budget's role in this year's deficit has resulted from the requirements placed on him by the Tennessee Corrections Institute to maintain certification at the jail.
At first, the sheriff's expense and revenue projections for the 2013-2014 year meant requesting 12 additional correctional officers and an additional maintenance person, while "zeroing out" all revenue previously received from the boarding of state and federal inmates.
Over the course of the county budget process, a period of 2-3 months, Burns has, however, altered his proposed budgets to include only four additional correctional officers and an additional maintenance person, on the expense side, and $1 million, rather than zero, in prisoner board revenue.
"If we had something settled [about a new jail facility], we -- at some point -- could start generating some more of that [state and federal prisoner-boarding] revenue," Burns said.
Mayor Alan Broyles noted that temporary housing for additional prisoners would be necessary since a new jail facility could not begin housing prisoners in time for this year's budget.
"I think the [County Commission] would have to have voted to do something and actually be in the process of doing something," Burns replied.
"The state might give us a little leeway [on the number of prisoners housed at the detention center], knowing that something's being done.
"A lot of the solution [to the county budget deficit problem] is getting this [prisoner-boarding] revenue back," Burns concluded.
LEEWAY FROM THE STATE?
Commissioner Robert Bird pointed out that the County Commission agreed to make a decision concerning the jail in September.
Burns responded by recalling a 1997 lawsuit against the county alleging jail-overcrowding.
He took office in 1998, and, in 1999, the commission voted to build the county workhouse to house low-security prisoners, to relieve the overcrowding at the detention center itself.
The workhouse opened in 2002, Burns said.
"In that process, we started generating some revenues [from state and federal prisoner board]. We opened it in May of 2002," he said.
"Well, in that 2002 fiscal year, the County Commission anticipated $1.2 million in revenue."
That year, however, he said, the county actually brought in $1.8 million in revenue from prisoner-boarding fees from the state and federal governments.
"We did an additional $600,000 that year," Burns said.
He went on to say that, as in the 1998-2002 period, in the coming year the county would be unlikely to experience any problems from the state for housing more state and federal inmates than are currently in the detention center if the county is actively building in an attempt to solve the overcrowding problem.
"I could see that you might increase revenue another million after the decision's been made about the jail," Mayor Broyles responded, "but could you bring in $2,025,000?"
"I think the difference I'm looking at in this $2 million [potential county budget deficit] is in the loss of this [boarding] revenue and some other increases," Burns said.
"If you [made a decision on a new jail], maybe you could get [the deficit] down to $500,000."
"You don't have to draw me any pictures," Commissioner Bird said. "I know what you're saying."
At the last meeting of the Budget and Finance Committee, the committee considered making across-the-board cuts in county departments to resolve the anticipated budget deficit.
With that in mind, the committee returned to county department heads their earlier requests for new positions and the continuation in the budget of currently-open positions. Those issues went back to where they were when this year's budet discussions started months ago.
In addition, the committee also put back on the table the possibility of removing a much-discussed 2012 two-cent increase in the county tax rate for the Highway Department.
These actions were taken in preparation for a committee-requested presentation by Budget Director Mary Shelton on how much each department would have to cut from its budget after removing from the consideration any amounts that are "in and out" grants, etc.
Shelton said Wednesday that she did not have such information to present, however, as most of the departments bring in some form of revenue through fees.
"I decided that really wasn't a good way to do that, so I didn't do that for this meeting," Shelton said.
The committee began to object, saying that such across-the-board cuts have been made in the past and that this information will be necessary for the commission's budget workshop that is scheduled for Monday.
"I thought that was what we were going to talk about today," Bird said. "Otherwise, we spun our wheels."
Shelton said that the percentage to be cut would be 9.5 percent. She explained that several department heads had talked to her, objecting to the feasibility of such an extensive cut.
"I can tell that," Bird said. "They're just protecting their own turf, and we have to protect the taxpayers' turf."
SHERIFF: IT'S ALL 'US'
Sheriff Burns interceded at this point, objecting to viewing the issue as "us" versus "them."
"It's all 'us,' " he said. "We're all here trying to do a job for the citizens."
Burns further noted that any cuts made to expenditures will be accompanied by resulting decreases to revenues.
For example, he said that if he has to cut $400,000 out of his departments' budgets, he could not provide the $1 million in state and federal prisoner board revenue that he had Shelton add into the budget during a recent meeting.
"Cuts have consequences," he said.
"We realize that," Broyles later said. "A lot of it is a double-edged sword. One thing's for sure -- something's going to have to be cut, whether it hurts, whether the sword digs in deep.
"Something's going to have to be done," he added. "We can't go on like this."
4 SCENARIOS ON MONDAY
The committee decided to present four scenarios at Monday's commission workshop, including:
* increasing the projected jail revenue and moving forward with a new jail project;
* a 17-cent property tax increase;
* a combination of cuts and a property tax increase; and,
* altering the tax rate to take funding from the Highway Fund, the Solid Waste Fund and the Education Debt Service to benefit the General Fund.
County Commissioner Hilton Seay noted that a 17-cent tax increase would provide the necessary revenue to cover the deficit, but would also cost property-owners nearly $42 more annually per $100,000 of appraised property value.
The workshop will take place at 9 a.m., Monday at the Greene County Health Department.
No decisions may be made at workshops, which are designed for discussion of the pros and cons of important issues.