County leaders mull ways to pay court security costs into future
By Chris Berendt Staff Writer
The decision has already come down, one called “historic” by the Sampson County Board of Commissioners chairman. Court security, needed for years, will be funded — but now county officials must figure out how to absorb that cost not just for this year but well into the future.
Last week, the board unanimously agreed to fund five deputy positions and two security officers, along with associated equipment and supplies, at a cost of $121,895 for the remainder of the 2013-14 budget starting April 1. Facility improvements and security equipment are projected to cost $264,990, bringing the total amount budgeted from April 1-June 30 to $386,885, however some equipment will be bid out so that figure will likely change.
The recurring courthouse security costs for 2014-15, in personnel, uniforms and vehicle insurance, is projected at $424,935. In future years, the cost would be slightly higher.
The board-approved budget amendment for courthouse security utilizes revenues from housing out-of-county inmates, making up the bulk — $326,000 — of the nearly $400,000 cost.
“We don’t know what’s coming tomorrow,” said board chairman Jefferson Strickland, “but if the past is any indication, if we would be diligent about what we do … use these numbers — they are pulling $326,000 from the inmate housing. That represents one-half a year of savings. If the inmate housing remains the same for next year, you could potentially fund the whole thing from (half a year of) inmate housing next year.”
For 2012-13, the jail finished around $800,000 above the roughly $590,000 in jail fees projected to be collected, collecting close to $1.4 million. While total revenues were down through the halfway point this year — from $604,106 collected in 2012-13 through Dec. 30, 2012 compared to $516,193 through Dec. 30, 2013 — jail fee revenue projections are in line to be met, and again exceeded. Just over $900,000 in jail fees are budgeted for the entire 2013-14 year.
If the census remains high, paying for courthouse security costs from those revenues is possible, finance officer David Clack has noted. Sheriff Jimmy Thornton concurred, but said many things would have to fall in place, notably other counties’ demand.
“We are constantly calling these counties to bring more if we can accommodate it,” said Thornton, who noted the strain on a stretched Detention Center staff when dealing with the optimum amount of inmates. “It’s tough, but we’re doing it.”
Commissioner Harry Parker said the county needed to weigh all of its options, and not assume those funds for housing out-of-county inmates would be there.
“We’re talking about what we have now, but we’re not assured that is going to take place next year or the year after next,” Parker said. “There have to be some alternatives. One way or the other, it’s going to affect the taxpayers. We have to think out of the box, not just for this year but for years to come.”
“We can’t speculate and say we project this is going to be there,” Parker said, “because anything can happen.”
Having a minimal amount of deputies to cover three court facilities, including a main courthouse with four different entrances, the prospect of providing security has been daunting — one that would require some combination of more deputies, less entrances and consolidation of court.
All of that costs money.
Uncertainty as to what was the most cost-efficient way of providing security, while taking into account a stagnant tax base and mounting debt service, delayed needed funding for court security for years. An order from Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Doug Parsons, in which he detailed the “inadequacy” of courtroom security that endangered lives, put an end to that.
He ordered that manned metal detectors shall be used to screen each individual entering the three facilities by April 1, and functioning panic buttons be installed at judge’s benches in each courtroom by June 1.
Commissioner Albert Kirby, an attorney, said he was fully in favor of better security in courts, but concerned about cost.
“Nearly a half million dollars added to our debt services every year is obviously the thing that is very concerning to me,” said Kirby. “It has to be done, but that is quite a big pill to swallow. I’m concerned that all was not done that could’ve been done.”
Kirby has noted Sampson’s massive court calendar and the possibility of swaying judges to modify it in an attempt to reduce the facilities needed to two, which might save the county money it would otherwise obligate to fund security at all three courts — the main courthouse, annex and extension.
“Something has got to be done, and we want to do it in the most economical way and we’re asking the court system to help us if they can,” said board member Billy Lockamy.
Just last week, Strickland and Kirby, along with Thornton and other county managerial personnel, said they would talk with Parsons further about the matter in the coming weeks.
The county already has three walk-through metal detectors, 12 handheld metal detectors and an ID card system in its possession. In addition to hiring personnel, key equipment upgrades would come in the form of cameras and card access readers to be installed at all three courthouse locations, as well as panic buttons within the four courtrooms at those three locations. A command area where court could be monitored would also be constructed.
No fund balance would be used, Clack said. Barring a tax increase, however, dipping into fund balance would likely be a necessity in future years, Clack noted. Continued revenues from housing out-of-county inmates is likely although the extent of those revenues remains to be seen, and lobbying state lawmakers to increase county allocation of court facility fees was a possibility.
“That is something real that we should work toward,” Strickland said of upping the county’s allocation of facility revenues. “This should be one of our priorities. If we could lobby toward getting that, maybe it could offset that.”
Clack said other counties would no doubt be in agreement.
Even before the board’s approval of the courthouse security funds, Strickland requested during a town hall forum that local lawmakers, including N.C. Sen. Brent Jackson and N.C. Reps. Larry Bell and William Brisson, increase court facility fees to offset the county’s pending security expenses, as well as broadening the scope of federal 911 funds for use toward the project.
Thornton went a bit further, saying the county might also suggest similar legislation to raise misdemeanant fees (the county receives $50 per day for each out-of-county prisoner and $40 per day for each inmate held as part of the Statewide Misdemeanant Confinement Program). However, the program actually assesses $50, of which the state pays each county $40.
“Surely they could up it $5,” said Thornton. “You aren’t talking mega bucks, but that would be some help.”
Sometimes, probation officers also get court costs remitted by judges, and “that’s money the county is not getting,” said the sheriff, who served with N.C. Probation for many years before becoming sheriff. “Court costs, fines, all that stuff is part of the punishment aspect of judgment.”
If an individual is arrested and stays in the jail for five days, court costs assesses $5 a day.
“Once they pay their court costs, that $25 comes to the county,” the sheriff noted. “But if the judge remits that $25, we lose out on that. Maybe we can ask our judges to work with us in not remitting some of these fees. Now it’s tough out there for some of these individuals on probation, but they got in trouble.”
Strickland said the ideas should be further explored, possibly as points of discussion with Parsons.
“We have these ideas and we can begin to work toward them — $5 here and $5 there, it adds up if it’s a continuing kind of thing,” he said.
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at email@example.com.
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