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Columbus voters were promised a new jail. Where did the money go?

Sunday Interview: New sheriff discusses budget

When Donna Tompkins won a gender discrimination lawsuit against then-Muscogee County Sheriff John Darr in 2013, she had no idea that she would one day sit in his seat.
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When Donna Tompkins won a gender discrimination lawsuit against then-Muscogee County Sheriff John Darr in 2013, she had no idea that she would one day sit in his seat.

In 2009, Columbus voters approved a one cent sales tax to fund public safety projects, including the construction of a new Muscogee County Jail to help house the growing inmate population.

Muscogee County Sheriff Donna Tompkins - a lieutenant in administration at the time - said she remembers working on a strategic plan for the department.

“I specifically remember a new jail being on that list at the cost of $44 million in ’08, and that it was something that needed to happen in the next five years,” she said. “And also, it was told to the people in ’09 that, ‘Oh yeah, well, we’re going to use this OLOST money, we’re going to hire 100 police officers, 78 people for the Sheriff’s Office, and we’re going to build a new jail.”

Tompkins said the facility was supposed to be built on the site of a 1939 jail on Sixth Avenue. She said the Department of Justice closed that facility years ago, and it’s currently used for storage.

In October of 2009, city officials announced plans to seek $131.5 million in bonds to complete a list of projects, including a new jail tower costing an estimated $31 million. The expansion never occurred.

The jail currently consists of the Columbus stockade, which was built in the 1800s; a north tower, built in 1984; and a south tower, built in 1999.

“Honestly, I don’t know why it never materialized,” Tompkins said of the jail expansion project. “And the whole thing has sought of been like, ‘Oh, well. Your inmate population is going to come down and you’re not going to need a new jail.’

“And my inmate population is not down,” she said Friday. “So, I think we’re going to have talk about this in the future.”

The issue surfaced recently at a Council consent/work session during which the Sheriff, again, asked Council to consider approving a change in pay grades for correctional officers and deputies to increase their salaries. After originally pitching the idea on Jan. 23, she returned with a plan that would allow her to pay for the increased salaries out of her current budget for the remainder of FY2018. She asked councilors to consider making the changes permanent for FY2019.

Tompkins said she wants pay reform similar to what has been implemented at the Columbus Police Department to help with recruitment and retention in recent years. She reminded Council of the plans to build the jail that never materialized.

She said the Sheriff’s Department only received about 26 positions from the OLOST money because the other positions were supposed to be part of the jail expansion. It is her understanding that the city has placed a good portion of the OLOST money in reserve to help maintain the city’s fund 60-day fund balance.

“I do think we had a lot of tough years,” she said. “And it’s probably what the City of Columbus had to do to keep that 60-day reserve mark for the bad years that we’ve had.”

“But where all that money went? Good luck,” she told the newspaper reporter, who posed the question. “I just know that, for us, we did not build that $44 million estimated jail. We did not hire all of those people. And all I’m asking for, since we didn’t do that, is to at least allow us to pay the people that we have out of that money, because that’s been 10 years ago. People need a pay raise.”

City Finance Director Angelica Alexander said the city set aside $3.5 million in the FY13 budget for pre-construction/design costs related to the jail expansion project and future personnel for the Sheriff related to that expansion. Due to overruns in the Sheriff’s Office, $2.02 million of OLOST funds was used in FY13 to cover the overruns. The remainder of what was set aside was used to cover overruns in the Sheriff’s Office in FY14.

"Although a specific time frame is not given, the City is authorized to issue bonds for the jail expansion project in the amount of $31,000,000 at some point in the future per the attached resolution," she wrote in an email. "The debt service payments for this future issuance will be paid from OLOST Public Safety funds."

Last year, Mayor Teresa Tomlinson told members of the Mayor's Commission on the Government Center and Judicial Building that about $33 million of OLOST funds had been slated for jail expansion. But the money was not needed at the time because the jail population had decreased, and she wondered if that money could be used to build a judicial center instead.

When asked if the OLOST money is still needed for jail expansion, Tomlinson said: "... The prior sheriff (John Darr) has depleted almost all of that because he used it for budget overruns. But the money does still keep coming in, and certainly if we thought there was a need to expand the jail, that's what that money is there for.”

Alva James-Johnson: 706-571-8521, @amjreporter

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