Jeremy's Notebook

Escambia’s Big Gamble, or ‘No Blinking’

June 21, 2013

escambia commissionThe Escambia County Commission has decided to take over operations of the Escambia County Jail. The move follows fruitless negotiations with the Escambia County Sheriff, the facility’s current manager, and was spurred by a U.S. Department of Justice investigation that mandates the county address issues at the jail.

“It seems to me, we don’t have much choice but to accept the jail and try to run it,” said Commissioner Wilson Robertson at the onset of last night’s meeting.

It was the beginning of another long discussion about who can run the jail for the right price and still satisfy DOJ investigators. It followed the hours of discussion yesterday morning and the many hours of discussion and negotiations prior to that.

“We just are lightyears apart,” Interim County Administrator George Touart told his commissioners.

george touartTouart and county staff have been wrangling with Sheriff David Morgan’s team for weeks. There remains a several million dollar difference between the two party’s positions.

“My problem with all these negotiations,” Touart had explained during the morning session, “is it comes down to this: ‘either we’re gonna get this, or we’re going to give the jail back.”

Morgan has laid out a $5.2 million threshold, money he insists he needs to address the DOJ’s concerns about understaffing at the jail. Touart insists that such funds would require a tax increase, something the commission isn’t up for. david morgan

The interim administrator instead put $2.6 million on the table—money from budgeted cost-of-living-increases for county employees—and told the commissioners the funds would allow the county to assume responsibility of the jail and address DOJ’s concerns.

“Which basically puts your career on the line,” noted Robertson last night.

Several commissioners raised concerns about the move. Commissioner Lumon May said there was “a lot of uncertainty,” and Commissioner Steven Barry wanted more specifics on the math.

steven barry“I’m not at all comfortable leaving just a blank, take-care-of-it-Mr. Administrator,” Barry said.

When commissioners began talking with county staff members, they learned that the costs associated with transferring jail operations over to the county are unknown. Touart admitted there would be one-time change-over costs—and that he doesn’t have a “crystal ball”—but said he felt comfortable with the $2.6 million.

“My opinion is,” Budget Director Amy Lavoy explained to the commission, “regardless who runs this jail, it is an absolute money pit.”

While no firm numbers were presented, Touart did provide a loose roadmap going forward. He said that the county would be able to save money by reducing the jail population through a focus on front-end opportunities, such as preventative programs and filling the county’s road camp to capacity—another concern addressed by DOJ—and also taking advantage of the county’s ability to contract medical services out to local hospitals.

“We’re here today to answer a simple question—who can handle the jail?” said Chairman Valentino. “Can we handle the jail and can we do it in a timely way?”gene valentino

By the end of the long night, the commissioners decided they’d give it a shot. On a 4-1 vote—with May dissenting—the commission instructed staff to put the wheels in motion to assume responsibility of the jail by October and draw up a plan that would satisfy the justice department.

“No blinking on this one,” Valentino told staff. “This has got to work like clockwork.”

  • Bob June 25, 2013 at 7:37 pm

    if they try to contract out to the hospitals the medical than someone ought to be fired. The hospitals are not going to staff the jail with their employees. Hospital cost are only 20% of the medical care. You have to have medical staff 24/7 or people will die and sue the **** out of the county. Let me see stop giving the inmates medicine next. This is the biggest bunch of hillbillies down at the BOCC. George is talking to Dennis Williams who caused many of the problems at the jail. There better be someone watching the money and contracts. Someone will be going to jail before this is all up.

  • Wilson Robertson June 22, 2013 at 2:30 pm

    This note is for C.J Lewis,

    C.J you finally exposed your true integrity by suggesting we tell the public one thing and then doing another. You want us to not roll back the tax millage equal to the new MSTU for library funding as we promised. You sound like most of the radicals on these blogs that have all the answers. get a life.

  • Ames June 21, 2013 at 6:46 pm

    At this point in time it seems that the only thing that may bring county citizens to their feet and to the polls is an increase in property taxes, sales tax, and gas tax to pay for a multi-million dollar fine imposed by the DOJ.

  • Jim June 21, 2013 at 1:21 pm

    Thank God for David Morgan. He is smarter than anyone down there.

  • Jamisea June 21, 2013 at 10:05 am

    Thanks to Lumon May to seeing the reality of this situation. It seems only he and Sheriff Morgan understand that the DOJ doesn’t mess around. If you get on the wrong side of the DOJ, they will make the entire county pay, pay and pay more. I and many other citizens trust the experience and wisdom of Sheriff Morgan way more than the clowns who call themselves our BOCC. I am sure they are nice men, but they oppose the Sheriff’s suggestion based on their vast experience at running a jail, right?

    I am not an attorney, but a regular working stiff. Commissioners, you have a choice: pay now or the DOJ will make us taxpayers pay through the nose and every other ******* later.

    I grew up in Texas and in 1972 an inmate in the Texas Dept. of Corrections decided to sue the TDC based on these charges on conditions at the prison:

    Overcrowding – particularly the placement of two and even three inmates in cells designed for a single inmate

    Inadequate security – claimed to be the result of too few guards, sometimes resulting in the handing over of supervision of whole sections of prisons to inmates (known as “building tenders”) who assisted guards

    Inadequate healthcare – an insufficient number of professional medical personnel for the number of prisoners, the use of non-professional personnel to deliver professional medical care, and limited therapy of for psychiatric patients

    Unsafe working conditions – exposure of prisoners to unsafe conditions and lax enforcement of safety procedures
    Severe and arbitrary disciplinary procedures

    For the full story:

    http://www.laits.utexas.edu/txp_media/html/just/features/0505_01/ruiz.html

    Does any of this sound familiar?

    The lawsuit finally went to court in 1980, after 8 years. The TDC was supervised by the DOJ from then until 2003. It cost the taxpayers of the state of Texas HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS to fix the system.

    Now, granted, we are talking about one county in Florida…not an entire state. However these days, the DOJ is much more of a player than it was in the 70s and 80s.

    Please, county commissioners and Mr. Touart, rethink your position in the interest of saving the taxpayers in the long run…not to mention the inmates.

  • CJ Lewis June 21, 2013 at 9:23 am

    A better title might be, “BCC: Eyes Wide Shut.” I blame us. We voted them into office. I wonder if any of the Commissioners have ever spent more than a few minutes in the Jail let alone very carefully read the DOJ’s Escambia County Jail Findings Letter. It is a disturbing document easy to find on the Internet and posted to the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division website for the nation to see. In sum, the BCC majority seems more worried about political blowback from taxpayers than owning up to their many years of underfunding the Jail. Amid all the many Jail problems that need to be addressed, the one that matters most is the Jail staffing shortfall. There seems to be no real plan to fix it. Praying to reduce the number of inmates is not a solution. According to the DOJ report, the Jail is understaffed but not overcrowded.

    Commission Valentino admitted the problem was a “crisis” but said it fell short of an “emergency.” I guess the distinction depends upon whether you are for against the U.S. Constitution and like or dislike the Jail being a dangerous and violent place because it is “grossly” understaffed. As the DOJ succinctly put it, “By continuing to ignore the very serious staffing inadequacies identified in the staffing study, the Jail is showing deliberate indifference to a real and present danger to prisoner safety.” I think it was Commissioner Robinson who said that no matter who manages the Jail, Sheriff Morgan or Interim County Administrator Tourat, the BCC is “ultimately responsible” for whatever is done or not done.

    As of March 2011, we are told the Jail was short 95 people. As of October 2012, the problem had gotten worse at 115. We know that there are 15 funded but vacant positions. My assumption is that the DOJ recommendation is for 95 “new” positions above and beyond the Jail’s authorized T/0 (Table of Organization). The DOJ’s investigation, that began before Sheriff Morgan took office, found that the Jail has been understaffed for years and “is operating with only about three-fourths of its needed staff.”

    What is the BCC response? Not much. The whiney claim that Escambia County is broke rings hollow. Adding insult to injury, last night we learned that four of the Commissioners are off to Tampa next week, presumably at taxpayer expense, to attend the Florida Association of Counties Annual Conference. I hope they have fun at Splitsville Luxury Lanes and Dinner Lounge, “Get ready for a night of entertainment including bowling, billiards, dining, dancing and more – you will have a blast!” I get chills just thinking of Commissioner Valentino on the dance floor with Commissioner Robertson. Let us especially hope that Gene “Misspoke” Valentino signs up for the “Honest Services and Public Integrity Workshop” and stays awake for all of it.

    As a start towards a solution, the budgeted money from the 15 positions funded but vacant this year should still be available for use next fiscal year, unless it was squandered on something else. We know that the burden on the Escambia County General Fund is going to be reduced in the next fiscal year by $3.1 million, because the Library is now going to be funded by a countywide MSTU. Rather than reduce the Escambia County millage rate equivalent to $3.1 million, as promised, would it be more prudent to reprogram and reinvest that money to hire Jail staff? I think so. At a projected average cost of $65,000, this $3.1 million could be used to hire 47 new Jail staff next year.

    Starting in January, ECAT is going to be funded using the gas tax. As I read this current budget, the BCC is subsidizing ECAT to the tune of $2.6 million this year. [It might be more.] Funding ECAT using the gas tax should free up almost $2 million next year, during the last three quarters of the fiscal year, and make available the full $2.6 million the next year. This savings does seem like another opportunity to lower the Escambia County millage rate. However, is this $2.6 million the same $2.6 million the BCC claims to have found to give a raise to all County employees? Last night we learned that this $2.6 million could fund 40 new positions at the Jail. Instead, the BCC seems inclined to set aside only half of this money to fund only 20 new Jail positions next year.

    Without raising taxes, there seems no reason the BCC could not reinvest the saved Library and ECAT money to hire most of the missing 95 Jail personnel next year. Thinking more creatively, are there other sources of money that could be used without raising the Escambia County millage rate? If you believe the current County budget document, “It is the goal of the County to maintain an adequate undesignated reserve of ten percent (10%) to provide a buffer against revenue shortfalls.” $2.6 million taken from the Reserve this year would hire 20 more Jail staff for two years.

    For Fiscal Year 2015, the BCC should consider establishing a Jail MSTU and a Court Security MSTU to fund fully the cost of each function. The existing Law Enforcement MSTU, and that is how it is described most often in the budget document, only raises $6.4 million this year. Why so little? The Sheriff’s budget for Law Enforcement is $45 million. How does the BCC fund the other $38.6 million? Does the BCC use property taxes raised within city limits to help fund Law Enforcement outside of city limits? I hope not. Next year, the City of Pensacola is projected to spend a total of $20,143,300 to safeguard about 23 square miles. Sheriff Morgan is responsible for the other 639 square miles of Escambia County. Non-city property owners should pay the full cost of Law Enforcement outside of city limits. The most equitable solution is to raise the Law Enforcement MSTU millage rate to fund Law Enforcement starting in FY2015.