Beside the Point – Jail staffing was wrong place to start spending talks

Opinion
CHUCK
VANDENBERG

A heated conversation started last week toward the end of the Lee County Board of Supervisors meeting when Supervisor Ron Fedler suggested that the county not backfill a full-time and part-time correctional officer for the Lee County Jail.

Fedler, a veteran correctional officer himself, seemed to surprise other supervisors when he asked the board to put off replacing one officer who left to go to another county’s correctional staff. It should be noted here, according to Sheriff Stacy Weber at the meeting, the officer left for a job that paid $6/hour more than Lee County.

At one point in the meeting, Weber said regarding Fedler’s move, “I don’t know where this is coming from, I really don’t.”

Neither do we.

It’s preaching to the choir, especially in this county, to say that we should we be watching our pennies. But it’s our contention, for what it’s worth anyway, that the safety of county employees is the absolute last place to draw that line in the sand.

Last year, supervisors were shown a video of a correctional officer in a fight with an inmate. There’s been a few more since then. The fight went on for almost two minutes before assistance could arrive. The C.O. was holding his own, but is that the job security we’re trying to market to officers that are making $6 an hour less than another department 30 minutes away. The officer also lived close to the county line where he transferred so it was a no-brainer.

But it’s also a no-brainer to fill those positions. Weber wanted to move a part-time C.O. to full-time and then backfill the part-time position. Fedler wanted to hold up both moves. It should be noted that he voted in favor of the move at the end of the discussion, but only on a commitment from other supervisors to look very hard at future spending. It would appear that motion would have passed any way.

After supervisors witnessed the video of the fight in the jail last year, they approved hiring two more C.Os. with an eye to the next budget to hire two more. The Southeast Iowa Area Crime Commission had recommended at that time, the county boost the C.O. staff by six, not two…six.

The county, in the last two budget sessions, has dipped into general fund reserves to balance the budget.

The sheriff’s department, secondary roads, and the county health department make up the lion’s share of the expenditures of the county with the sheriff’s department teetering on the $4 million mark. That’s about 23% higher than the department’s budget under former Sheriff Jim Scholl. Fedler said the department’s budget has “exploded” under Weber’s leadership. It has at that. But so has jail population and so has crime. Jail Administrator John Canida has put in the hours stripping down costs on daily items including soap, paper towels, and even food, to mention just a few.

The Sheriff’s department put up a proposal to have a new vendor come in to provide three meals a day to the jail inmates at just over half the cost of the Iowa State Penitentiary’s meal service. The prison has yet to negotiate the price of their meals to keep the contract with the sheriff’s department, and has actually suggested the current price of $3.25 might go to $3.50. The price of the meals at the Juvenile Detention Center behind the prison, is already $3.50. ISP provides two meals per day.

The meal program would require upgrades to the kitchen to the tune of about $80,000 including equipment. The county is close to creating a bid for the maintenance work that would be required to handle the new equipment. Canida told supervisors the savings, based on an average jail population of 90, would save about $87,000 per year.

During the summer and fall, the Lee County Jail had seen average daily populations at more than 100 offenders during several stretches. It’s been settling in at close to 65-70 per day.

Deficit spending is precarious in any organization and with the state continuing to defund local governments, it’s a very real problem. A new backfill bill, which phases out payments the state was making to local governmental bodies to replace funds lost with a commercial property rollback in 2013, has the support of Governor Kim Reynolds. That bill will cost the county about $96,000 next year if it passes.

The state has also mandated a spend down of counties’ mental health funds without proposing a way to fund those services going forward. It’s painting a picture of additional unfunded mandates and putting pressure on county officials to find cuts.

But we’re a news outlet that tries to keep tabs on crime in this part of the county. In the past four weeks we’ve had four high-speed chases in the county, and more importantly in the 16 months we’ve been up and running, we’ve had a murder, an officer-involved shooting, a random shooting from a vehicle on the north side of town..and that’s what we know they’re working on. Crime is on the up-tick. Des Moines County, specifically Burlington, has become a hot-spot for violence. Just across the river in Oquawka there was a shooting this week. I dude got tased this week trying to flee law enforcement

We need to have a reputation for “not here” and that message needs to carry into our jail. The county needs to protect its employees, especially the ones that go to work every day with the worst people in the county outside the state penitentiary. Until revenues starting coming in on natural gas use at the Iowa Fertilizer Plant (if the state doesn’t find a way to commandeer those, too) and possible revenues start flowing off the recently constructed pipeline, Fedler is bringing up the right conversation, but even veteran supervisor Rick Larkin got after Fedler a bit for indicating the county was not appropriating money in the taxpayer’s best interest.

We agree. Cuts may be coming as the state continues to “deappropriate” at every turn, but Fedler just started at the wrong end of things.

Stay tuned next week, as I’m writing a piece on how writing, even personal writing, can have a healthy impact on stress levels at all ages. But that’s Beside the Point.

 

 

About Chuck Vandenberg 3660 Articles
Pen City Current and pencitycurrent.com are products of Market Street Publishing, LLC, a multi-platform media company delivering hyper-local news, sports and advertising information to Fort Madison, IA and surrounding communities.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply