Darr on 2015 budget: 'It takes a lot of money to run the county jail'

mowen@ledger-enquirer.comMay 13, 2014 

Muscogee County Sheriff John Darr said Tuesday that his office cannot carry out the necessary duties under Mayor Teresa Tomlinson’s proposed Fiscal 2015 budget.

Speaking to Columbus Councilors meeting as the Budget Review Committee, Darr offered a document detailing the mayor’s proposed budget of $24.8 million and his proposed budget of $26.8 million.

In his first five years in office, Darr overspent his budget by a total of $7 million, city records show.

In 2009 his overrun was $673,000; in 2010 it was $1.15 million; in 2011 it was $1.4 million; in 2012 it was $1.74 million and in the fiscal 2013 budget, he spent about $2 million more than his budget.

Darr has contended that over that five-year span, he was never given a budget sufficient to carry out his responsibilities. That, Darr said Tuesday, is what he’s trying to avoid this year.

“What we did not want to do is to continue to have to come before council and ask for more funding,” Darr said. “Unfortunately it takes a lot of money to run the county jail. That what most of these costs are.”

Darr said much of his expense at the county jail are medical, over $4.6 million, according to his proposed budget, but about $4.15 under the mayor’s. Part of that discrepancy is a contract with New Horizons to provide health care services. While the mayor’s proposed budget allots about $2.5 million for the contract, Darr’s allots about $3.2 million.

Another discrepancy is in overtime for sworn personnel. While Tomlinson’s budget provides about $311,000, Darr’s calls for more than twice that, $681,000.

Overtime for jail personnel is yet another place where the budgets don’t line up. Darr said he needs $285,000 for jail overtime while Tomlinson’s budget offers a little more than half that, $150,000.

Darr said he and his command staff put together the budget by breaking down everything the sheriff’s office does and what it costs to do it.

“This budget we presented today is what we need to run the sheriff’s office without running a deficit,” Darr said. “I’ve made the mistake in the past of taking budgets that were not going to fully fund the sheriff’s office and hoping that it worked, and it hasn’t worked.”

Darr said he would be glad to sit down and go over the budget with any member of council or with Finance Director Pam Hodge, as one councilor suggested during the budget session.

“But you’re not going to find much to cut in this budget,” Darr said. “What you’re going to find that when you go to cut something, that’s going to services that we provide to the citizens and to departments in the city.

“Sometimes you just don’t have that luxury of saying, ‘I’m not going to do that.’”

While neither the administration nor the sheriff budged from their positions during the presentation, Tomlinson said the session represented a good first step toward addressing the sheriff’s fiscal woes.

“I know it doesn’t look like it, but we made tremendous progress today,” Tomlinson said. “For the first time, we have a line item budget from the sheriff, so Pam (Hodge) can go through it and help him find some savings.

“It was just a first step, but it was a big one.”

No action was taken on the sheriff’s budget Tuesday. The final decisions on the fiscal 2015 budget won’t be made until council votes on its final version in late June.

In recent years, when faced with tough budgets, councilors have relied on the city’s reserves. But that has spent the reserves down from about 90 days to a shade over 60, the limit below which the city’s bond rating could suffer.

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