Anderson County Mayor Terry Frank’s op-ed column submitted to the media last week questioned County Commission’s decision to expand the jail. It has some incorrect statements about the history of this decision that need to be corrected.
In 10 years, the peak daily population of the jail nearly tripled. In 2000, there were 120 inmates, and in 2010 there were 340. The jail had a capacity of 226 when the decision to expand the jail was made in 2011. The peak daily population this year has increased to 396.
Mayor Frank’s claim that the jail is not overcrowded in very misleading.
This overcrowding is causing major problems in being able to properly classify inmates based on risks and other factors. This was the major reason the state was about to decertify the jail in 2011. It also does not take into account that we have approximately 3,000 outstanding arrest warrants, some of which prosecutors and deputies will tell you are for criminals that need to be in the jail. These criminals are not being actively pursued because of a lack of jail space.
The number of inmates in the jail varies from day to day and is totally dependent on those arresting, prosecuting, defending, and judging these criminals—not County Commission. County Commission is required to fund the jail to house however many are assigned to the jail by the criminal justice system. Faced with serious overcrowding and decertification of the jail by the state and federal lawsuits, County Commission had no choice but to expand the jail.
Mayor Frank’s column implies that a 16.2-cent tax increase was passed in 2010 to fund the jail. That also is misleading. The largest portion of that tax increase went to fund the County Alternative School. Taxpayers in Oak Ridge did not have their taxes increased to cover this county school project.
Taxes were increased (for the first time in 10 years) by five cents (2 percent—or $15 per year for an average homeowner) to cover the jail construction. This was with the understanding that the extra cost for operating the jail would be paid for by savings in other areas and by increasing revenue for housing a limited number of low risk state and/or federal inmates.
For 10 years, County Commission has been encouraging those in our criminal justice system to put alternatives to jail in place to help slow down the rate of growth in jail population. In 2011, commission provided a small amount of funding for a program to help jump start these alternatives.
Per the plan for staffing the jail, last year we able to staff the dormitory phase of the jail project without a tax increase by working to hold down spending in other areas of the sheriff’s budget.
This year’s budget approved by County Commission also provided enough funding for staffing the final phase of the jail expansion without a tax increase—but only for the last six months of this fiscal year.
The sheriff has agreed to operate within the approved budget, but the mayor has refused to sign the salary agreement to allow this to happen. So we are stuck in a lengthy and costly lawsuit that will probably lead to a tax increase that could have been easily avoided.
The jail was built with extra beds to allow for the expected increase in jail population over the next 10 years. Several of us on County Commission believe we can provide the staffing for the full year for this final phase of jail expansion by contracting to house a small number of low-risk state and federal inmates at a negotiated rate that allows us to cover some of our fixed costs.
We are asking that the law director prepare a plan for County Commission’s consideration that would allow us to use this revenue to pay for these jailers without a tax increase—like some other counties in the state have done.
The mayor has said:
- No to several requests by County Commission for her to meet with the sheriff to work out their differences in wording in the salary agreement and avoid the costly lawsuit between she and the sheriff.
- No to providing the staffing needed to open the expanded jail.
- No to the alternatives to jail program, proposing to cut it by over 80 percent.
- No to even exploring ways to generate increased per diem and revenue from housing inmates and thus avoiding a tax increase.
It appears that with this and other issues the county is beginning to look as dysfunctional as Washington, D.C. As leaders, we need to work together to find solutions to problems and offer workable alternatives rather than just saying no.
Anderson County Commissioner, District 8