City vs. Bennett

City says no, won’t pay $62.85 rate, requests relief from judge

The City of Blackshear has amended their petition in an ongoing legal dispute with Sheriff Ramsey Bennett over a jail housing agreement for city inmates.  

The amended petition, filed in Pierce County Superior Court Thursday, March 18, appears to shift the focus of the lawsuit from an argument over which prisoners Bennett is obligated to take and what intake processes he can require Blackshear Police Department to follow, to the question of whether the sheriff has the authority to negotiate the daily rate the city must pay for housing those inmates.

Brandon Palmer, special  counsel for the city, requests a declaration from the judge regarding the sheriff’s authority to “enter into an intergovernmental contract for the city’s use of the Pierce County Jail” and his legal right to “demand a charge above and beyond that contracted for between the city and Pierce County.”

“We contend the county is the local government responsible for contracting with the city to house their inmates and the sheriff doesn’t have that authority,” Palmer told The Times.

Rick Currie, Bennett’s attorney, told The Times he has reviewed the amended petition and intends to file a response.

“I’ll be meeting with the Sheriff ... we will be responding,” Currie says.

In the petition, Palmer reiterates the city’s position they are bound by the $35/day rate set forth in a 2018 Service Delivery Strategy (SDS) with Pierce County and claims the sheriff has “demanded payment in the amount of $62.85 per diem, per inmate, for the city’s use of the county jail, even though the city already has a contract with the county for use of the county jail.”

The Times obtained a copy of an invoice from the Pierce County Board of Commissioners to the City of Blackshear dated March 3 for inmate housing charges for February. That bill charges $62.85 per day for a total bill of $1,131.30.

City officials reportedly intend to pay the $35/day rate as set forth in the SDS for now.

Sheriff Bennett previously indicated  he would charge the city his “actual housing cost” of approximately $62/day, in the absence of a renegotiated agreement. (See previous Times’ coverage of this ongoing legal action.)

“The Sheriff contends that because he is the sheriff, he has the authority to require a payment above and beyond that contracted for between the county and the city … the Sheriff has no lawful authority to require the city to pay a per diem fee to accept, take charge of, and house inmates from the custody of the Blackshear Police Department, above and beyond that contracted for between the county and the city,” Palmer argues in the amended petition.

Prior to Palmer’s filing of an amended petition, Senior Judge E.M. Wilkes III denied the city’s request for a temporary restraining order (TRO) against Bennett that would have mandated he accept all inmates arrested or charged by the City of Blackshear Police Department into the Pierce County jail for 30 days.

Wilkes’ denial followed Bennett’s on-the-stand testimony at a TRO hearing in February that he would indeed accept all prisoners, thus eliminating the immediate need for a TRO ruling.

“Regardless of an agreement, we’ll take prisoners,” Bennett said on the stand.

When questioned by his attorney, Bennett further stated he would accept BPD inmates with or without a warrant, and will also take inmates charged only with municipal offenses. Bennett reportedly began accepting all city inmates into the jail again in February waiving conditions he implemented in January.

“Based on these representations by [Sheriff Bennett], this Court finds that there is no immediate risk of harm or loss to the Petitioner (City of Blackshear),” Wilkes wrote.

Wilkes has set another hearing in the case for Friday, May 14. The hearing will begin at 10 a.m. at the Courthouse Annex.

Read more coverage on this ongoing story in the December 16, 2020, January 20, January 27, February 3, 10, 17, 24 and March 10th editions of The Blackshear Times and on The Times’ website at www.theblacksheartimes.com.