Pensacola, Florida
Monday September 25th 2017

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The Black Hole of the County Budget

By Rick Outzen

For the past two months, Escambia County Commissioner Doug Underhill has decried that the county faced a $9 million shortfall in its FY 2018 budget. However, the problem isn’t the Escambia County Area Transit or the FloridaWest Economic Development Alliance, Underhill’s favorite whipping boys.

No, the black hole sucking up the county’s revenues is the Escambia County Jail, whose budget has jumped from $28.3 million when it was under control of Sheriff David Morgan to $40.8 million under the county’s supervision in just four years.

Some might want to blame the 2014 jail explosion for the unprecedented budget increase, but the problem is much more complex. However, few would disagree that the June 2013 commission vote for the county to take over the facility may be the worst decision made in Escambia County’s history.

Jail Politics
In the spring of 2013, Sheriff David Morgan officially submitted his FY 2014 budget to the Board of County Commissioners that included $40.25 million for the county jail, an $11.8 million increase. The sheriff had gotten wind that the U.S. Department of Justice would soon complete its five-year investigation of the facility and mandate nearly 100 more corrections employees.

The proposed detention budget would have hired 83 additional detention deputies and 12 detention assistants and brought up the starting detention deputy pay to match the county’s Road Prison officer pay.

The response from the Board of County Commissioners was less than enthusiastic.

“We’re stunned on the amount,” said then-Commission Chairman Gene Valentino. “No sheriff has come forward with such a ridiculous request as this.”

Morgan warned of the consequences of not funding the jail properly.

“If you refuse to do this and we have an unexplained death in the jail, what do you think is going to happen?” he told Inweekly. “The Department of Justice will be all over you, and they’ll sue the county until their eyes bleed.”

At more than $76 million in FY 2013, the sheriff’s total budget was already the largest chunk of the general fund.

“If you cut another $18 million out of the county budget,” said Commissioner Grover Robinson, “we don’t have anywhere to go.”

Commissioner Wilson Robertson, who retired last fall, said in 2013 that he doubted the county could shoulder any budget increase in FY 2014.

“If the sheriff was asking for $2 or $3 million, I don’t think we could do it,” he said. “Anything in the magnitude he’s asking is ridiculous.”

Morgan was armed with the DOJ concerns and a Justice Concepts Incorporated study, commissioned by the BCC, which noted county jail’s structural needs and recommended that 95 new detention staff members be brought aboard.

“I’m not required to run the jail,” Morgan said, following the release of his budget request. “What I want the county to understand, you can’t give me this facility and then underfund it.”

Sheriff Morgan and the BCC agreed to hold a series of meetings to discuss possible options. The increase was eventually lowered to $7.5 million. However, the negotiations fell apart when Valentino took over the process. The commissioner went on television attacking the sheriff and the jail staff. He refused to allow the sheriff and his chief deputy to speak at commission meetings to rebut assertions made about jail operations by then-Interim County Administrator George Touart and others.

In June, Sheriff Morgan returned the county jail to county control. He later would agree to delay the transfer to Oct. 1, 2013.  The proposed budget of detention was reduced to $28.9 million. Only Commissioner Lumon May voted against the transfer.

At a Pensacola Rotary meeting, Commissioner Robinson said the county could manage the jail for “substantially” less than the sheriff’s budget. He noted all Florida counties were responsible for the operating jails by statute, and it made sense for the county to control the facility.

On April 30, the Central Booking and Detention Center that housed over 600 prisoners exploded. The detention costs began to mount.

The proposed FY 2018 budget for detention and its medical services is $40.8 million, a 44-percent increase over the FY 2013 approved budget—the largest increase of any county department.

Behind the Increase
On the fourth floor of the Escambia County Administrative Complex, Inweekly sat down with Assistant County Administrator Amy Lovoy and Corrections Financial Manager Whitney Lucas to review the causes of the huge budget increase.

During the last year that Sheriff Morgan ran the county jail, the average daily census was 1,351 prisoners. On Monday, July 10, the county’s detention facilities handled 1,581 men and women, a 17-percent increase over the Morgan era. The prisoners are spread over five facilities, including Walton County’s jail.

The main jail, often referred to as “Castle Grayskull,” was built in the mid-1980s to house 798 inmates. On July 10, the facility had 1,011 prisoners crammed into its cells.

Lucas pointed out that today’s prisoners have significantly more costly health issues than four years ago. The number of prescriptions for HIV-infected prisoners have increased 39-percent since FY 2014, but the costs of those medications have jumped 188-percent over the same period.

“In May 2017 alone, HIV medications accounted for 2-percent of our prescriptions and 68-percent, $112,226, of the prescription expenditures, and that’s just one month,” said Lucas. “For the 2015 calendar year, we had 10 inmates requiring dialysis. We have had 390 dialysis treatments this year at the cost of $650 per treatment.”

The county has little control over the number of prisoners in its detention system. Over 70-percent of the inmate population is awaiting trial – about 7 percent are in jail on bonds of $1,000 or less. If we could keep the prisoners awaiting trial for petty crimes out of jail and in other programs, the taxpayers wouldn’t have to pay for their medical care and other needs.

“Most of our sick prisoners would qualify for Medicaid or Medicare to pay for their prescriptions, dialysis and hospital care,” said Lovoy, “but they lose federal coverage when they’re in jail. The county taxpayers pick up the medical bills.”

This past year, Florida TaxWatch promoted several criminal justice reforms, including laws to reduce penalties for and divert “driving while license suspended” offenders; increase the amount of usable gain time for nonviolent inmates; and lengthen the period of eligibility for and expand transitional work-release programs. Earlier this year, the Escambia County Board of County Commissioners sought support from the Florida Legislature to consider the county as a pilot program for such reforms. Unfortunately, state lawmakers did little regarding criminal justice reform this past session.

For Escambia County to rein in its detention costs, all the stakeholders need to be at the table to hammer out solutions. The sheriff’s office, judges, state attorney’s office, public defenders, and possibly even the county health department need to sit down with county officials and see what can be done.

Lovoy said, “All parties need to come together and address the county’s corrections issues. No one entity can successfully tackle it alone.”