BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
MONTROSE – A replacement for the Lee County correctional officer spurred a hot debate among supervisors as to how to go about controlling spending.
At Tuesday’s regular meeting of the Lee County Supervisors, Supervisor Ron Fedler held up a vote on replacing a correctional officer in the Lee County Jail because of a state memorandum this week that indicated approximately $98,000 in commercial property backfill money may not be paid by the state in the 2019 fiscal year and beyond. The 2019 fiscal year budget has already been approved by the board.
The board eventually approved the part-time replacement as a backfill for another part-time correctional officer who will be promoted to fill a vacancy. Fedler wanted the motion tabled for several months until the new fiscal year budget went into effect.
“Now we’re looking at what I said earlier. The state is constantly doing this where they don’t care about our budget, they just want to balance their budget,” Fedler said.
“The reason I’m bringing this up at this time is that we have about 2.5 months left in this fiscal year budget and these would be permanent positions. Are we going to continue to deficit spend to fund programs?”
Fedler told Lee County Sheriff Stacy Weber that the budget for the sheriff’s department had “exploded” under Weber’s leadership.
The board approved adding two deputies and two correctional officers earlier in the year after seeing an increase in crime in the county and witnessing a video where a correctional officer had engaged in a fight with an offender and it was several minutes before another officer could arrive to assist.
“The one thing I’ve noticed is the budget we used to have for the sheriff’s department and the one we have now has exploded dramatically and somewhere along the line someone pays for that. A lot of it has been done with deficit spending and that’s what my big concern is,” Fedler said.
Weber said he has to make sure the jail is a safe environment for the inmates and the staff.
At the end of the day a judge puts people in jail and we’ve got to live with those numbers,” Weber said. “We feed the and house them safely and I have the obligation to protect our staff from the assaults. When they come in, often times they’re on drugs. I want to make sure we have enough staff to deal with them without anyone getting hurt. Deputies are the same way. The increased amount of deputies on the streets is very noticeable.”
Supervisor Matt Pflug asked what impact not replacing the officers would have on the department.
Jail Administrator John Canida said the department would be saddled with overtime.
“If we don’t do this today, they’re going to have ongoing overtime,” Pflug said. “So I don’t see why we wouldn’t just replace them.”
Fedler, who spent close to 20 years as a correctional officer at Iowa State Penitentiary, said it’s understood, regardless of staffing size, that you’re at risk of being assaulted when you accept the position.
Weber said the Southeast Iowa Area Crime Commission indicated the department needed six additional correctional officers, and the board approved two.
“I appreciated those two and the staff appreciated those, but I’m doing what the experts are telling me needs to be done and what I see needs to be done,” he said.
Fedler said the ISP staffing levels have dropped tremendously since he was an officer there.
“I have a hard time understanding that the state continues to reduce staffing at ISP from the level it was when I worked there. It’s ridiculously low. So how can they get by reducing their staff and then people are telling you you can’t?” Fedler asked.
Pflug said his information is that ISP may not be as safe of a place to work as it once was because of the reductions in staffing.
“Is it a safe working environment? I hear it isn’t,” Pflug said. “The scuffle that went on in that jail cell here, that was a bad situation.”
Weber said it also makes it hard to attract staff when you get a reputation for being unsafe.
“If you have a reputation of a dangerous environment, you won’t have people apply here. They’re having that same trouble at ISP,” he said.
The new officers are included in the 2019 budget, but County Budget Director Cindy Renstrom clarified that a budget amendment would be needed for the 2018 budget to pay for this year’s costs of the added deputies and corrections staff.
“Where does it stop, Cindy?” Fedler said. “It’s in the ’19 budget but that revenue is being reduced. We have to find a way to reduce expenditures in that budget. Otherwise we’re going to be in big trouble in this county when it comes to paying our bills.”
Fedler voted in favor of the measure after telling Folluo, who made a motion to to approve the replacements, he was only doing so with an expectation that the board begin hard discussions on being more fiscally responsible.
Supervisor Rick Larkin said he didn’t want the message getting out that the county wasn’t being responsible.
“Ron, I don’t like when you say we need to start to be more fiscally responsible,” Larkin said. “Them cutting our money form the state has nothing on how we budgeted. We are being fiscally responsible. You can look at our spending and I don’t want the message going out that we’re not being responsible. The message will go out that we’re spending like crazy and I don’t think we have been.”