By ED HOWELL
Daily Mountain Eagle
The Walker County Sheriff’s Office has requested through an attorney that the Walker County Commission release documents accounting for all the …
By ED HOWELL
Daily Mountain Eagle
The Walker County Sheriff’s Office has requested through an attorney that the Walker County Commission release documents accounting for all the commission’s sources of revenue to “find common ground” on the funding issues facing the Sheriff’s Office and the Walker County Jail — noting the county’s Fiscal 2018 budget may affect the federal consent decree involving the jail.
The official letter was the first response by Walker County Sheriff Jim Underwood to the commission after it passed a Fiscal 2018 budget on Sept. 26 that Underwood said before the vote was “not reasonable and is unacceptable.” He said the jail is owned by the commission, not by the sheriff, and the commission is responsible for funding repairs. He also said his department and the jail are understaffed, and that he has spent $412,000 in discretionary money on needed items to help the county with its finances.
Jerry Bishop, the chairman of the commission, said during the meeting that rumors were floating that Underwood would sue to the county. Underwood would not comment on that statement after the Sept. 26 meeting.
The commission on Monday voted to require that the sheriff be responsible for feeding prisoners in the jail. Funds for feeding the prisoners will no longer pass through the General Fund but go to the sheriff. The sheriff will contract for the feeding. He will get to keep any financial surplus in those funds, and will be responsible for deficits. A food contract the commission had with ABL Management, Inc., to feed the prisoners expires Oct. 31. District 1 Commissioner Keith Davis said the state pays $1.75 per inmate and that the county has been spending at a higher rate than that.
Underwood on Thursday said it will be difficult under the short time line and with understaffing to go through the process of bidding out a new food contract.
On Thursday, Underwood released the Oct. 3 letter, written by attorney Donald R. Rhea of Gadsden. Underwood noted that the letter was delivered to the commission on Wednesday.
Rhea said in the letter he was asked by Underwood to assist him “with working through concerns that he has” with the Fiscal 2018 budget passed to fund the Sheriff’s Office and the jail.
Underwood said Rhea’s extensive legal background in sheriff matters, as he has worked in the past on behalf of the Alabama Sheriffs Association.
Rhea said Underwood submitted a budget request of $2,343,241 for the Sheriff’s Department and $2,921,401 for the jail. The budget approved by the commission is $2,222,0336.70 for the Sheriff’s Office and $2,791,587.35 for the jail.
“While all county departments require adequate funding for operation, the need for the Sheriff’s Department and the detention facility are unique and, as you know, never ending,” Rhea said. “Positions must be properly staffed with trained personnel 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Furthermore, there is a direct correlation between adequate staffing and safety. The concept of safety directly affects the citizens of the county, the employees of the Walker County Sheriff’s Department and jail facility, and also prisoners housed in the facility.”
He said the commission’s budget leads to a reduction of $116,949.30 for the Sheriff’s Office since Fiscal 2017, while the jail will see a reduction of $146,925.65 for the jail since the 2017 budget.
To balance the adopted budget, Underwood will have to “significantly reduce law enforcement presence, not only in the communities throughout the county, but also the Walker County Courthouse,” Rhea said. “The ability to timely respond to calls and carry out orders of the court will be seriously and dangerously impacted. The ability of Sheriff Underwood to be able to satisfy the obligation required by law will also be significantly impacted.
“In addition, the reduction of funding for jail operations will have a serious and potentially dangerous effect on the jail operation,” Rhea said. “As you know, the current jail facility was constructed as a result of a consent decree in the case of Terrell v. Herring (US DC ND ALA) CV No: 93-B-2690-J. This decree, to which the commission is signatory, was entered in November 1994. The decree, to which the commission is signatory, was entered in November 1994. The decree imposes on the county an affirmative responsibility with respect to adequate funding, staffing and oversight.
“We are concerned that the budget, as adopted, will prevent the commission and the sheriff from being able to fulfill their respective responsibilities pursuant to state law, federal law and the decree ....”
The letter then requests county financial documents.
“In an effort to work through this issue, and hopefully find common ground and a resolution to this serious budgeting problem, we request that the commission make available for review and copying all records or documents that account for all sources of revenue to the commission, from any source available, including but not limited to” a number of items listed.
Those items included revenue received or available from ad valorem taxes; all road, bridge and other sources; gasoline taxes; coal mining, transportation and processing taxes; all fees, assessments and contracts; and all grants, revenue sharing arrangements and “from any other source, whether subject to earmark, designated use, or otherwise unencumbered with respect to its legal or historical use.”
Rhea said the request should be interpreted as “incorporating all sources of income, funds or revenue available to the commission from all sources for any purpose.” He asked for the information from Fiscal 2016 and Fiscal 2017 be provided, as well as anticipated revenue for Fiscal 2018. He asked that the information be “made available for review, inspection and copying.”
He also requested that the county provide “all information related to any deposits, funds, accounts or other evidences of financially related assets, in whatever form they exist and the location of said assets,” including finances retained from completed, ongoing or anticipated projects; funds deposited anticipating future needs and fund available for ongoing and current operating activities.
The county was requested to make the information available within 10 days of Wednesday. The information was requested by that date so that when Sheriff’s Office and commission officials meet, “everyone will have available to them the same information as it relates to financial resources anticipated, currently available and/or otherwise accessible,” he said.
“I will look forward to a favorable replay to this request at your earliest and quickest convenience,” Rhea said. “It is our hope that we will be able to meet, confer and have access to the requested information no later than 10 business days from today.”