The ‘Soft Transfer’

escambia county commissionWith scant discussion regarding Sheriff David Morgan’s recent offer to retain control of the county jail for another year, the Escambia County Commission this morning digested another report on the progress of the jail transfer and heard from staff about various particulars of the process.

“Everyone keeps focusing on October first,” Interim Administrator George Touart told the commission, stressing a “soft transfer.” “It’s not like the curtain is going to fall on October first, where the sheriff turns the lights off and we turn the lights on.”

Touart and staff are working towards assuming operations at the jail by the start of the new fiscal year. Commissioners decided to take over operations in the face of a mandate from the U.S. Department of Justice to address numerous concerns with the facility, as well a budget request from Morgan deemed to be too high.

Touart has said he can complete the transfer and begin addressing the DOJ concerns for $2.6 million or less. Morgan this week offered to manage the facility until October 2014 for that same amount, giving county staff more time to conduct the transfer and possibly leaving the door open for further negotiations following Touart’s recently formalized exit.

During today’s agenda review session, commissioners showed little appetite for Morgan’s offer. Commissioner Grover Robinson said he was “a little disturbed” by the notion of using $2.6 million entirely to hire additional correctional officers and mental health professionals, contending that the DOJ’s concerns were much broader and also addressed issues such as minimizing the jail population and working with the judiciary to take more advantage of rehabilitative programs.

“There’s more to the solution than just going to hire a bunch of correctional officers,” the commissioner said.

Insofar as the current progress of the jail transfer, county staff reported that they were currently assessing how best to transfer employees—with various contracts in play—from the sheriff’s office to the county. Budget Director Amy Lavoy said that much of the funds covering administrative costs at the jail were contained within the sheriff’s law enforcement budget (as opposed to the corrections budget), and would need to be carved out and brought over to the county.

Touart also told commissioners that he hoped to consolidate IT departments between the county and sheriff’s office. He said the move would save the county between $100,000 and $150,000.

County Attorney Alison Rogers clarified that she was not currently working towards a Memorandum of Understanding regarding IT services. She noted that representatives from the sheriff’s office in the public gallery didn’t appear optimistic about such prospects.

“They’re shaking their heads,” she said, “so I don’t know if that’s something we’re going to be pursuing or not.”

Rogers also informed the commission that the DOJ was currently drafting a proposed settlement agreement to present to the county. She said she was not aware of the particulars of the agreement, but that it would lay out what the department considered to be an appropriate response to its investigation and findings.

The attorney described her interaction with the sheriff’s office, primarily with its attorney, as “extremely helpful, extremely cooperative.” She also said that the transfer process was “very challenging,” considering the timeframe.

“I have to be very frank, the turnaround time is very short and it is very challenging,” Rogers told the commission, adding that she felt confident that the staff working to pull off the transfer could “bring it all in one way or another on time.”

Commission Chairman Gene Valentino said today that he had received several letters from inmates at the county jail who were complaining about certain conditions in the jail.  The letters were passed along to Gordon Pike, head of the county’s Correction’s Department; Touart this morning requested the letters also be forwarded on to the facility’s director.

“I’d like you to get me up to the jail to meet these people, to take a look and see what’s going on,” Valentino told Pike, also requesting that Commissioner Lumon May visit the facility with him.