Commissioner addresses sheriff over jail

Published 10:57 am Thursday, March 9, 2017

Debate on move continues

At the Lawrence County Commission meeting two weeks ago, Commissioner DeAnna Holliday submitted a letter to Sheriff Jeff Lawless in response to previous letters submitted to the commission by the sheriff regarding the potential jail move to the ORV.

Holliday gave the letter to Lawrence County Chief Deputy Auditor Chris Kline, who was serving as the commission clerk at the meeting, to give to Lawless.

“I am writing in response to your previous letters submitted to the Lawrence County commissioners regarding the ongoing effort to open and operate the Lawrence County Jail at the Liberation building located at the Ohio River Valley Correction Center in Franklin Furnace. I appreciate your efforts in identifying the potential and anticipated costs of executing the move and the operation of the Franklin Furnace facility,” Holliday’s letter states. “The numbers you have submitted to the commission are alarming. However, I am confident that the proposed new Lawrence County Jail can be opened and operated at a significantly lower cost than your estimates indicate. As leaders of Lawrence County, we must be willing to recognize our financial abilities and restrictions. This is a difficult, but doable task.”

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In the letter, Holliday goes on to talk about ways she believes the move is not only necessary, but also obtainable.

One area Holliday addressed was the issue Lawless had brought up about deputies traveling to other counties multiple times a week.

“I agree our current jail situation poses an unnecessary threat to the safety of our deputies, and creates a great liability to our county,” the letter states. “My prime concern is the safety of the deputies that keep our county safe. Utilizing the ORV facility would eliminate the long trips your letter states creates the safety threat to our deputies.”

Lawless said that although he agrees the move would cut down transportation costs, the current financials of the county are still not enough to sustain the move.

“I’ve wanted this ORV project to work since day one. I’ve been to Columbus multiple times, and have been a proponent of the move since the very beginning,” Lawless said. “However, I’ve met with the current commission and previous commissions multiple times and the county auditor numerous times, and our current financial situation is hindering our move.”

The current Lawrence County Jail budget is around $1.6 million dollars, which includes $786,500 in correctional officer salaries, not including health insurance or PERS, $127,000 in food costs, and around $700,000 to transport inmates out of county. However, several weeks back, the commission voted to move $500,000 of  the sheriff’s out-of-county transportation fund to go toward the jail move.

In response to the sheriff saying that the current jail does not meet most current state standards, but that it operates to the best of its abilities, Holliday said that after speaking with state officials, including members of the General Assembly, legal representatives of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, and representatives of the Ohio Bureau of Adult Detention, she believes that a move to the facility is not only possible, but would also generate profit from the ability to house out-of-county prisoners.

“We have the opportunity to house a significant number of out-of-county prisoners at the ORV facility, and thereby reducing any anticipated budget deficits resulting from operation of the ORV facility,” the letter states. “Other counties are charging approximately $75 per day to house female prisoners. We possess the ability to have a pod comprised completely of out-of-county female prisoners at the ORV facility. I do not feel that we have opened our minds to the full potential of the ORV facility and the revenue stream we could create with the efficient use of the facility.”

In the letter, Holliday said that the county has an approximate average of 85 daily inmates at the jail, which would likely be reduced in the near future as a result of the jail alternate and diversion programs that are being implemented by the courts and county prosecutor.

“Even so, using our current average daily inmate population, the ORV facility would have the ability to house approximately 35 female out-of-county prisoners. Our most comparable neighboring county houses prisoners at a cost of $22 per day, netting them $53 per day per female out-of-county prisoner,” Holliday’s letter states. “I believe our sheriff’s department can be as efficient as any neighboring county with their operation of a jail and can net a similar amount per prisoner once the ORV facility is operational. Therefore, by restructuring our approach to the way we do business, we have the potential to net our county $667,075 per year by housing out-of-county female prisoners at the ORV facility in addition to satisfying our county’s own needs.”

In response to the issue of the number of inmates and the possibility of housing out-of-county female prisoners, Lawless said that the county judges call him regularly about space available at the jail, meaning that he didn’t know if that kind of space would necessarily be available at the ORV facility.

“Judges call me all the time to see if I have space at the jail to take people in, which I don’t” Lawless said. “So there’s people that are out there in the county that would be in jail if I had the room for them.”

The last issue Holliday brought up was that of the number of correctional officers needed to operate the county jail at the ORV.

“In researching the staffing necessities of the ORV facility, I learned that a county in our area has 193 prisoner beds and is staffed with 29 full-time correctional officers. I believe this is a much more realistic and responsible model for Lawrence County to use rather than the recommendation of 48 from the Bureau of Adult Detention. They indicated to me that the number was a recommendation based upon your current operational projection and not a requirement to actually operate the ORV facility,” the letter states. “I believe we can operate the ORV facility with 24 full-time correctional officers. I have been informed that there are currently 16 correctional officers in your department. I suggest we negotiate with the union to transition to 12-hour shifts for correctional officers. Doing so will save the county eight full-time correctional office positions as opposed to the current eight-hour shifts and result in an approximate savings of $496,000 under current pay rates.”

Lawless said that he would be able to get away with hiring less correctional officers than the 48 suggested by the Bureau of Adult Detention, but he would still need to build his staff to include at least somewhere in the mid-30s.

“I was disappointed in receiving that letter from her knowing how hard I’ve worked on this project for the past three years. I read this letter like we haven’t looked at every possibility to make this work,” Lawless said. “Over the past three years, we’ve ran through every situation we can to make it work, and there’s just no way to make it happen.”

Lawless added that, as a county leader himself, he believes he is doing the right thing by not putting the financial burden on the county in making the jail move.

“I’m being fiscally responsible by recommending we not take this building on at this time,” he said. “I could be a selfish sheriff and demand that we make this move, but I believe that a move like this would put the county in a fiscal emergency, and I don’t want to cut budgets of other county departments like EMS and the Lawrence County Juvenile Center to make this work.”

Holliday said that she did not intend for the letter to attack Lawless, but rather to just make sure that all possible avenues are looked at to make it happen.

“I want to be absolutely sure that I’m not blaming the sheriff or pointing fingers,” Holliday said. “He’s done everything that he’s been asked to do, and we need to build this county up, not tear it down. My goal with the letter was just to identify everything that needs to be looked at when looking at the possible jail move.”

Holliday’s letter concludes by saying that she believes the reward of the move is worth what it would take to get there.

“In conclusion, we must ask ourselves one ultimate question: Do we place the burden of building a new jail for $15-plus million and operating that facility on the taxpayers?” the letter states. “Or do we make a short-term investment of $300,000 to $400,000 to make the necessary improvements at the ORV facility which will provide us as an interim solution while we work to build a jail in Lawrence County over the next 12 years?”

Lawless said that he believes costs involved in the move would exceed those projected estimates, and leave the county in a very tough place.

“There’s so much that needs to be done at the facility. We need a detox tank, a visitation area and exterior showers, all of which have a total estimate of $322,000,” Lawless said. “And then we have to hire more correctional officers, add security doors, security cameras, a parking lot and other things. Plus we have the costs of all of the materials and supplies needed for the inmates and our officers as well as other work that might need to be done there including plumbing.”

Lawless said that he believes building a new jail in the county is the only way to move forward with the situation, and that a feasibility test would need to be conducted sometime in the near future to determine a location as well as set a hard number for the cost of a new jail.

The county’s lease of the ORV facility with the state is set to expire Friday, May 5.