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Thursday July 24th 2014

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Down at the Crossroads

With nearly all the players in the same room, the discussion roamed until it was exhausted. That journey continues tonight during the Escambia County Commission’s regular meeting.

“Commissioners, we have come, I guess, to a crossroads,” Interim County Administrator George Touart said during this morning’s agenda review session. “[I’m] asking you to make a decision on what your thoughts are, or what you want to do with the county jail.”

Escambia officials are wrestling with the future of the operations of the county jail. Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan has long said he needs additional correctional officers to manage the facility. That position—as well as other concerns about the jail—has now been validated by a U.S. Department of Justice investigation, which is mandating the concerns be addressed. County commissioners, however, contend that the funds needed to satisfy Morgan are not possible.

After weeks of contentious negotiations and political sparring—indeed, this morning’s meeting was sprinkled with fits of rough and tumble—the officials are flirting with impasse. As it stands now, the sheriff has let commissioners know he is prepared to hand over operations of the jail to the county; while several commissioners stressed that they preferred continuing negotiations, the board appears ready to take Morgan up on the offer.

Here’s the divide on the math: County staff has been able to bring $2.6 million dollars to the table via cuts to proposed cost-of-living pay increases to employees, but the sheriff has laid down a $5.2 million threshold.

Commissioners will continue their discussion on jail operations and possible remedies to satisfy the DOJ investigation tonight. With Morgan’s threshold and the commission’s refusal to consider a tax increase, it look like the jail could be changing hands in October.

Regardless of who operates the jail, a plan forward must be submitted to DOJ soon. County Attorney Alison Rogers, who has been in contact with the federal bureau, described the agency as “pretty easy to work with.”

Tonight’s meeting begins at 5:30 p.m. at the county’s downtown governmental complex, with a public forum beginning at 4:30 p.m.