Empty jail beds fuel feud between Swain sheriff, countyWritten by Becky Johnson
The new Swain jail costs the county $610,000 a year more than the old jail: $450,000 in debt payments and an additional $160,000 on overhead and staff.
The county hoped to make $500,000 a year housing prisoners from out of the county to offset the cost.
The county’s old jail was unsafe and dilapidated, so a new one was in order anyway. County leaders figured they may as well make it extra big and try to subsidize the cost by housing inmates from out of the county, and end up with a new jail for relatively little of their own money.
But revenue projections fell far short. Over the past 12 months, the county only made $140,000 housing out-of-county prisoners, a far cry from the half million it hoped for, according to County Manager Kevin King.
King said that the jail is not an undue burden for the county, however.
“We are making it just fine,” King said. “We are covering the debt. We are covering the operation. We are covering personnel.”
That said, if the new jail brought in more money, it could bolster the sheriff’s budget — which is a bitter source of contention between the county commissioners and Sheriff Curtis Cochran.
“When he first started as sheriff, I told him all this is done as a business plan,” County Manager Kevin King said. “The more revenue generated the more deputies and law enforcement we are going to be able to fund.”
When the new jail opened last fall, the county added five additional jailers, two new deputies and an extra secretary.
But King said the additional staff was contingent on an influx of inmates, which never materialized.
“It is like McDonald’s or anywhere else. If you aren’t selling hamburgers they are going to lay people off and send them home,” King said.
As the county grappled with a budget shortfall for the new fiscal year, commissioners looked to the jail to make cuts. The county cut four positions that had been added in the past year.
Two of the laid-off staff had been hired as jailers but had since been made deputies after Cochran realized he didn’t need that many jailers. A third layoff targeted one of the two new deputies added over the past year. The fourth layoff targeted the additional secretary position added over the past year.
An ongoing feud
Cochran still has one more deputy and three more jailers than he did a year ago, but has publicly criticized the commissioners’ decision to cut his staff. He accused the county commissioners of jeopardizing the safety of Swain County’s citizens by underfunding his department.
Cochran had increased deputies on the night shift from two to three. Now, he’s back down to two. If both are tied up on calls, residents are left with no backup, he said.
King points out that Cochran’s budget is still bigger than his predecessor’s, former sheriff Bob Ogle.
In reality, the Cochran’s budget comprises the exact same percentage of the total county budget now as it did under Ogle.
For the 2009-2010 fiscal year, the sheriff’s office accounts for 8 percent of the total county budget and the jail accounts for 7 percent of the county’s budget. It’s the exact same percentage as 2005-2006, the last budget allocated by commissioners under the tenure of former sheriff Bob Ogle.
Cochran’s supporters have accused the commissioners of playing politics with his budget. The commissioners are all Democrats, while Cochran is a Republican.
“There is nothing political about this issue,” King countered.
King pointed to the number of new vehicles the county provided Cochran’s office this year. Typically, the county replaces two or three vehicles a year, and sometimes skips a year altogether. This year, the county bought five new vehicles for the sheriff’s office.
Cochran and the commissioners have been warring over the sheriff’s budget since Cochran took office in late 2006. Cochran suffered a major blow to his own salary when the commissioners ended a lucrative arrangement to feed inmates enjoyed by Cochran’s predecessors. When the commissioners decided to end the long-standing practice on the eve of Cochran taking office, it was seen as political retribution.
Cochran has a lawsuit pending against the commissioners, claiming they effectively reduced his salary in violation of state statutes. Commissioner David Monteith has consistently sided with Cochran and against his fellow commissioners on budget issues.
Swain county budget expenditures by year:
Jail, 2009-2010: $875,000
Jail, 2006-2007: $715,000
Percent of total county budget both years: 7%
Sheriff Dept., 2009-2010: $964,000
Sheriff Dept., 2006-2007: $796,000
Percent of total county budget both years: 8%