Pensacola, Florida
Friday September 22nd 2017

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Outtakes—Rearranging Deck Chairs

By Rick Outzen

The Escambia Board of County Commissioners holding budget workshops without dealing with the exponential rise in detention costs, to use an analogy of Sheriff David Morgan, is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic with the iceberg dead ahead.

Detention costs account for nearly half of the county’s General Fund Operational Budget. Its impact on the budget over the past few years has been lessened thanks to insurance reimbursements resulting from the April 2014 explosion of the Central Book and Detention Center that housed about 40 percent of the county’s prisoner population.

However, the FY 2018 proposed budget exposes the full cost of county detention, $40.8 million. When the Sheriff David Morgan last ran the Escambia County Jail in 2013, his budget for the jail was $28.3 million. For FY 2018, the cost of running the county jail and its medical services has increased $12.5 million, a 44 percent jump.

In the summer of 2013, Commission Chairman Gene Valentino mocked Sheriff Morgan for even suggesting that he would hire 100 more detention staff to meet the demands of the U.S. Department of Justice. Interim County Administrator George Touart assured the board he could deal with the DOJ and run the jail cheaper than Morgan.

Morgan had originally requested $40.2 million to deal with the DOJ, make structural improvements at the jail, and get his detention officers’ pay on par with the county’s Road Prison staff. Valentino and Commissioner Wilson Robertson called the request “ridiculous.” The sheriff agreed to cut the increase nearly in half, but Valentino and Touart still insisted they could do better.

What we learned later was Valentino was being pushed by Morgan’s political foes who saw an opportunity to get revenge on the sheriff who soundly defeated Ron McNesby in 2008 and Jim Lowman in 2012. There were even behind-the-scene discussions to hire a private contractor to run the jail.

Within seven months of the BCC taking over the jail, the CDB exploded due to the faulty installation of gas dryers in its basement. The cost of county detention began to increase each subsequent fiscal year until it finally surpassed Morgan’s original request.

Touart passed away in January 2014. Valentino lost his 2014 re-election bid, and Robertson stepped down last fall. The political power brokers who hid in the shadows pushing the BCC to take the county jail away from the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office remain in their dark corners, far away from any accountability.

Meanwhile, county leaders are left with the mess. They will be the ones who have to figure out how to stop the financial hemorrhaging.