County Commission seeks loan, may consider dispatch cuts
By: Darrell Todd Maurina
Posted: Monday, November 17, 2008 8:27 am
County Facilities Board members Bill Debo and Donna Newcomb speak to county commissioners on Thursday, Nov. 13, regarding a proposed loan to the county.
PULASKI COUNTY, Mo. (Nov. 17, 2008) — Facing a year-end deficit of at least $150,000, Pulaski County commissioners tried an unusual financing method at their Thursday morning meeting. County commissioners asked members of the Public Facilities Board, which administers a multimillion dollar maintenance fund left over from the courthouse construction about two decades ago, to consider loaning the money to the county so it wouldn’t have to seek higher commercial interest rates.
Presiding Commissioner Bill Ransdall was candid about future repayment possibilities.
“Payback won’t be quick because next year is not going to be any better, in my opinion, unless we fill Fort Leonard Wood to capacity,” Ransdall said. “Phelps County is down, Laclede County is down, everybody I talk to around here is down … Part of that is due to the deployment at Fort Leonard Wood. We had three units shipped out which drastically affects our sales tax.”
Facilities Board chairwoman Donna Newcomb was concerned about the cost.
“Is the $150,000 just going to be a band-aid?” Newcomb asked.
“I don’t know, Donna, the answer to that. It’s bad, and everybody is facing this thing,” said Commissioner Dennis Thornsberry.
Whatever arrangements the facilities board members make, Newcomb said the board would have to charge the county at least as much interest as it is receiving on its deposit bank accounts.
“We have to be able to do that, otherwise we are not handling or guarding it well,” Newcomb said.
Facilities Board member Bill Debo asked for details.
“What kind of time frame are you talking about for a payback?” Debo asked.
Ransdall said he wasn’t sure what’s realistic.
“If you paid it back over three years, you’d have to add $50,000 to each of the next three years of budgets,” Ransdall said. “We’ll have to cut $150,000 out of the budget just to break even if things stay status quo.”
Newcomb asked whether the county’s deficit, which is largely due to unplanned cost overruns in the county jail, could be solved by building a new jail.
“Is there any chance of running it past the voters again to put a sales tax before the voters to build a jail so we can hold our own?” Newcomb asked.
Probably not, commissioners replied.
Thornsberry said even though Pulaski County sends its extra prisoners to the Dixon City Jail, Phelps County Jail and Miller County Jail, he’s been told by Phelps County that the $35 per day per inmate that county is charging doesn’t cover the full cost of housing inmates there, which they estimate at $54 per inmate per day.
“You can build a jail but then it costs money to operate it. I can tell you we will never break even, ever,” Thornsberry said. “It is actually cheaper to pay people to house them for you.”
Thornsberry said the option of housing federal prisoners probably won’t work, either.
“People talk a lot about getting federal prisoners but there’s no guarantee you will ever get the first one,” Thornsberry said. “What everybody told us is, ‘Don’t build a jail bigger than the people you need in your county.’”
“The only way you can make money is with federal prisoners,” Ransdall said, which may not work because there are two new jails on each side of Pulaski County in Phelps and Laclede counties.
Ransdall said the best option may be to create a minimum security jail for the county that would cost much less to build and to staff, and said he recently visited such a facility
“It was like a gymnasium with bunk beds; they had one guard in a glass shack in the room,” Ransdall said. “When you talk about a jail, I guarantee you 90 percent of the people think about concrete and bars but lots of our people don’t need that.”
Getting a location for a jail is a problem, Thornsberry said.
“You talk about building a jail, where are you going to put it? Land is a problem; it’s got to be put in the county seat,” Thornsberry said. “It sounds good, but when you get into the nuts and bolts of all of what it will cost to do this, it’s difficult.”
Other options might exist as well, Newcomb said.
“I always wondered why we didn’t take the middle school when it was empty for minimum security. We could have used that building; maybe it would have been donated if we had asked,” Newcomb said. “It just seems to me like such a waste.”
Thornsberry agreed that using an existing building might work, but said that won’t eliminate the cost.
“There are pods that you can just insert into a facility but that s not cheap, either. But even when you do that just for minimum security, you’ve got to pay money to hire people to guard it,” Thornsberry said.
Facilities Board member Arnold Bassett has a different idea to cut costs.
“The sheriff’s department is still paying $130,000 or $140,000 or so for dispatchers,” Bassett said. “I checked with Springfield; 911 out there dispatches everyone including the sheriff’s department. Can that be implemented here?”
Changing that may not be easy, commissioners said, noting the settlement terms of a prior lawsuit between former sheriff J.T. Roberts and the county commission included specifics on the sheriff’s dispatch system.
“It even gets into particulars of where they will sit,” Ransdall said.
“When they settled the lawsuit, there is a memo line in there that the county will furnish dispatchers for the sheriff’s department,” Thornsberry said. “My personal opinion is every city in this county works an eight-hour shift and after hours they switch over to 911. I don’t know why they can’t do it.”
Later in the meeting, Bassett and Commissioner Bill Farnham clarified that Dixon police and St. Robert police do their own dispatching; Bassett said Dixon firefighters used to do their own dispatching with a special 911 line but cut it out due to cost.
Thornsberry said commissioners should have checked in early 2008 to determine whether the legal settlement between the sheriff’s department and the county commission is still binding and requires the county to keep its dispatchers.
“How do we go about checking?” Bassett asked. “Do we have to talk with some judge on this settlement?”
Ransdall said he’d look into it.
“We will ask the prosecutor to look at the issue of the court decision on the dispatchers being provided by the county for the sheriff’s department,” Ransdall said.