jail contract

Sheriff, police chief slated to meet, work out details of inmate housing agreement this week

Some of Blackshear Police Department’s prisoners may be turned away at the door to the county jail come January 1.

That’s if the city and Sheriff Ramsey Bennett don’t reach a consensus on a renegotiation of the daily rate for housing city inmates. Chief Wright and Bennett were slated to meet this week.

Bennett sent a letter to city officials September 28 requesting a renegotiation of an inmate housing intergovernmental agreement dated October 31, 2013 be conducted before the end of the year. That agreement formalized the rate at $35/day.

The sheriff is requesting a $10 increase to $45/day for each city inmate housed in the jail, and told The Times he estimates that will be an additional $5,000 annual cost to the city.

“We’re not talking about an earth-shaking amount of money. In round figures we’re talking $5,000 a year,” Bennett said.

The city reportedly paid $20,000 in inmate housing fees in fiscal year 2019 and contributed $5,000 to the jail maintenance fund the same year. Police Chief Chris Wright pulled those figures for the council to review last week rather than for the current fiscal year which has been skewed lower by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

City council members discussed the matter, reviewing alternate proposals presented by the police chief at a November 30 work session, and instructed City Attorney Adam Ferrell to counter Bennett’s request.

Ferrell did so in a letter dated December 1, but advised the council last week the sheriff was not willing to accept any of the city’s proposals.

“He’s pretty adamant that he’s asking to increase the per diem to $45/day,” Ferrell said. “He was not agreeable to any of our alternatives.”

The city countered Bennett’s request by potentially agreeing to the $45 per diem rate, but only for inmates arrested on offenses within Blackshear Municipal Court’s jurisdiction. The Municipal Court processes violation of city ordinances, traffic offenses and certain misdemeanors (as allowed by state law), receiving fine revenue for those cases.

The city does not want to pay a  daily rate for anyone arrested on Superior Court, State Court or Juvenile Court charges. The county collects all fines and fees for cases adjudicated through those courts, and city officials argue those revenues already compensate the sheriff for housing those inmates. Councilman Keith Brooks also pointed out city residents pay county property taxes which fund multiple services utilized by both city and county residents.

City officials also requested the daily rate be calculated on an actual 24-hour clock beginning at the time of booking. Currently, each day is calculated by a midnight rule  — an inmate housed from 11 p.m. - 2 a.m. would cost the city a two-day stay.

According to Chief Wright, 60 of the 78 municipal inmates arrested this year were in jail for 12 hours or less; eight were there for 13-24 hours and another 10 were housed for 24 hours or longer.

The sheriff confirmed city inmates booked for municipal court violations don’t typically stay more than 72 hours. Bennett allocates approximately two beds a day for Blackshear inmates.

Bennett says he’s willing to negotiate, but doesn’t consider the city’s offer to pay $45 for municipal court inmates and nothing at all for other prisoners a fair one.

“They kinda got to make (an offer) first. What they made wasn’t a counter offer,” Bennett says.

The daily rate of $35 was established before Bennett was elected in 2012, and the sheriff says rising costs have made a renegotiation of the contract necessary.

“Everything we have to provide is higher now … we’re just trying to cover costs. We’re not trying to make money,” Bennett says. “I represent the people in the City of Blackshear, too. They expect me to do the best with their tax dollars, too, and that doesn’t mean losing money.”

When the 72-bed county jail is full  — which Bennett says has been nearly every day this year  — deputies transport inmates to surrounding county jails and Bennett pays an average of $45 per day to house those inmates.

“Nobody in their right mind buys beds for $45 and sells them for $35,” Bennett argues.

The sheriff pays rates ranging from $35 per day (Brantley, Coffee counties) to $55 per day (Glynn County) to house inmates in Ware, Appling, Brantley, Coffee, Glynn, Lowndes and Wayne counties.

Typically, Pierce County inmates are taken to Ware County because it’s the next closest facility, but due to COVID-19 outbreaks, the sheriff has had to take inmates to Appling County and even further away more often this year.  

“I’ve had inmates in all those jails at some point in the last 12 months,” Bennett says.

Ware County Sheriff’s Office charges Bennett a daily rate on a sliding scale due to the volume of Pierce County inmates they typically take: 1-9 inmates is $45 per day, 10-19 inmates is $40 per day, and 20 or more inmates is $37 per day.

City officials contend, however, they can pay less than $45 a day by transporting their inmates to a neighboring facility. Wright surveyed fees charged to surrounding cities by their county sheriff, and provided that data to the council.

• Appling County charges Baxley $25 per day with no charge if the inmate is released within 24 hours. Baxley also contributes to a jail maintenance fund.

• Bacon County charges Alma $35 per day, but there is no county jail maintenance fund in place.

• Brantley County charges its police departments $35 per day. There is no county jail fund in place.

• Ware County does not charge Waycross a daily fee. Waycross does contribute to the county jail maintenance fund.

• Wayne County does not charge Jesup a daily rate, but Jesup contributes to a county jail maintenance fund.

In counties where a jail maintenance fund is in place, municipalities tack on a 10 percent fee to the base fine for citations. That revenue is then deposited in the jail maintenance fund.

“Going to $45 per day would be paying more than any county around us,” Wright reported.

The council was in agreement to continue remitting the 10 percent citation fee into the county jail maintenance fund. When averaged and added to the daily housing rate, Wright estimates the city is currently paying $61 per day for each inmate. He calculated that figure based on revenues through November.

The city also agrees to continue drug testing through Valdosta Crime Lab rather than through the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI). Pierce County currently pays for testing costs, and the city pays for personnel and fuel costs for transporting drug evidence to Valdosta.

Area law enforcement agencies routinely send evidence to Valdosta Crime Lab for testing to avoid a backlog at the GBI lab, but reportedly pay $100 for each test. GBI does not charge to process drug evidence.

“Valdosta Crime Lab turns results over a lot faster,” Chief Wright told the council.

At the close of last week’s council meeting, Ferrell advised the mayor and council to collaborate with county commissioners on the issue as the $35 per diem rate is established in an existing service delivery agreement (SDA) between Pierce County and surrounding cities. That agreement was updated and approved by all participating governments earlier this year with no change to the inmate housing fee.

“We really need to get Pierce County involved because our agreements are intergovernmental agreements with Pierce County,” Ferrell said.

Bennett does not agree.

“The county commissioners are not set forth in statute, in Georgia law, as the keepers of the county’s jail,” the sheriff says. “If they (the city) think they can negotiate the jail rate with the county commissioners, somebody better build a new jail.”

The sheriff also contends the SDA is not a binding agreement, and maintains the 2013 inmate housing agreement between the two entities can be canceled with 30 days notice and a new contract established.

“I’m also not bound by any service delivery strategy. That is not a binding document as I understand it. That is simply a compilation of all the existing agreements within the county and the municipalities within that county,” Bennett told The Times.

Bennett indicated he’d like to speak with the mayor, police chief or city council members directly about the matter, confirming his only communication had been through correspondence with the city attorney.

So, what will happen at midnight on New Years Eve?

The sheriff agrees he is bound by law to take all inmates charged through State and Superior Court, but, argues he can turn away municipal court inmates if no agreement is reached by the end of the year.

Ferrell claims otherwise in a letter to the sheriff dated December 8, stating the sheriff also has a duty to house municipal inmates.

“I believe the Sheriff, as the county jailer, would have a statutory duty to house municipal inmates at the Pierce County jail pursuant to the agreement between the cities and the County. This duty has been recognized and affirmed by the Georgia Supreme Court,” the letter reads.

According to Ferrell’s letter, the city wants to maintain the existing $35 daily rate until a meeting can be scheduled with the county and city attorneys, mayor, county manager, police chief and sheriff.

But, Bennett feels city officials have already had ample time to renegotiate the agreement.

“I gave them 90 plus days and told them December 31 I would cancel the agreement. That gave them three city council meetings to get their ducks in a row,” he says. “I’m not trying to be hard to get along with, but I think 90 days notice is sufficient. Poor planning on their part doesn’t constitute an instant emergency on mine.”

Editor’s Note: As of press time Monday, Sheriff Bennett and Police Chief Chris Wright were reportedly to meet Monday evening and again Tuesday morning in an attempt to work out the details of the inmate housing agreement.