Saying his department starts “in the red every year,” Muscogee County Sheriff John Darr outlined for Columbus Council how jail medical costs and overtime contribute to yearly budget overruns.
Darr spent more than an hour Tuesday morning fielding questions from councilors and Mayor Teresa Tomlinson. In his first five years in office, the department has overspent its budget each year. That has added up to almost $7 million since Darr took over in 2009, city records show.
In the fiscal year 2013 budget, the sheriff’s office spent about $2 million more than the budget of $28.6 million. That overrun will be covered out of the nearly $5 million jail fund for personnel and construction, Darr told council. The sheriff’s office deficit spending has averaged about $1.4 million a year and has become progressively worse every year, records show.
Darr said there were three reasons for the budget overruns — mental health treatment for jail inmates, medical care for inmates and overtime pay.
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The city, under an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, agreed to upgrade mental health treatment for inmates after a 2012 inspection of the jail.
“That agreement, reviewed and approved by the city attorney, cost roughly $700,000 the first year,” Darr said.
Two new measures should help control health care costs, Darr said. The department has contracted with a private vendor, Correctional Healthcare Companies, to manage the jail clinic. Also, the Affordable Care Act will shift some of the costs for inmate coverage, Darr said.
Inmates, if they previously qualified for Medicaid, will qualify for coverage if they have not been convicted.
The sheriff said he also would hire an additional budget person to help the department analyze the numbers and trends. Tomlinson pushed Darr to commit to the new hire having budgeting experience. Councilor Judy Thomas said she hoped the “additional person will not be doing adding and subtracting, but advising you and your command staff.”
Longtime Councilor Red McDaniel said jail costs are not a new problem.
“As long as we keep putting bad people in jail, it is going to cost a lot of money to take care of them,” McDaniel said. “It’s not your fault. It’s not our fault.”
Councilor Evelyn Turner Pugh said the issue is tightening budgets and the need for the departments to stay within their budgets.
“We don’t have the dollars,” Pugh said. “And if we did have the dollars, we probably wouldn’t be here today.
The most complicated — and at times confusing — part of Darr’s explanation was overtime pay. Most of the correctional officers employed in the jail work 12-hour shifts. Over a 28-day period, they work 168 hours, eight more than the 160 hours a person working a normal 40-hour week over four weeks would work. The city pays those employees who work the 168 hours, eight hours of “straight pay” at their normal hourly rate. That “straight pay” is on top of the officers’ salary.
Under federal labor laws, the city is not required to pay that additional pay until employees work more than 171 hours in the 28-day period. The sheriff’s office has had a longstanding policy that dates back about 15 years to pay after the employee tops 160 hours.
“Let me clear, we are paying them for hours they work,” Darr said. “This is not bonus pay.”
As Finance Director Pam Hodge, Darr and others explained the policy, Thomas summed it up by saying, “This is as clear as mud.”
Tomlinson said the city might have to revisit this policy.