inmate housing dispute

Blackshear retains special counsel in argument with Sheriff over jail agreement

The City of Blackshear may file suit against Pierce County Sheriff Ramsey Bennett for breach of contract regarding an ongoing dispute over fees charged to the city for inmate housing at the county jail.

When a new agreement was not reached by year end, a Blackshear Police Department inmate was turned away and temporarily housed in Ware County until a bond hearing could be held transferring the prisoner into the Sheriff’s custody.

The city council adopted a resolution last Tuesday evening, January 12, to retain law firm Smith Welch, Webb & White LLC of McDonough to represent the city regarding the matter. The vote followed a 40-minute closed session to discuss litigation.

“The city hereby authorizes special counsel to represent the City; supervise, manage and assist in the preparation, filing and handling of litigation, if necessary, regarding the Sheriff’s duties to accept inmates to the Pierce County Jail and breaches of the Agreement for jail services and the Intergovernmental Agreement for the detention of inmates and to recover any overcharges paid by the City to the County or Sheriff for use of the Pierce County Jail,” the resolution reads.

“This is the last thing I wanted to do. Period. I’m tired of all of the things that have gone on. I kind of thought we could wipe the slate clean and start fresh at the first of the year, but there really is no other recourse,” Mayor Kevin Grissom told The Times last week.

The sheriff reserved comment for now, citing pending litigation.

“I have no comments on pending litigation. I reckon that’s all I need to say about that,” Bennett told The Times.

Bennett requested a renegotiation of the 2013 agreement in September, indicating the current agreement would be terminated at year end if a new agreement couldn’t be reached. Bennett has requested a $10 increase in the daily rate from $35/day per inmate to $45 per day. (See coverage in the December 16, 2020 edition of The Blackshear Times).

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

The city countered Bennett’s request, agreeing to pay the per diem rate for municipal court inmates, but not for inmates charged with offenses adjudicated through State or Superior Court for which the city receives no fine revenue to offset the jail housing charges.

“We do not have a problem with the extra money,” Grissom says. “The problem we have is paying for the prisoners that are going to be taken into the custody of [PCSO] because of Superior Court or State Court [jurisdiction].”

“We just don’t feel like it’s the taxpayers responsibility of Blackshear to pay for the people you charge [through Superior/State Court] because the city does not see one dime of revenue to cover those expenses, but the county does,” Grissom continues.

City officials also contend the daily rate should be based on a 24-hour rule rather than the current midnight rule.

“If you’re brought in at 10 p.m. you’re charged for that day and if you’re bailed out by 2 a.m. the next morning you’re charged that day (too),” Grissom says.

Bennett contended last month the city’s counter-offer wasn’t sufficient.

“They kinda got to make one first. What they made wasn’t a counter offer,” Bennett said.

According to the resolution adopted last week, when an agreement was not reached by December 31, 2020, PCSO stopped accepting BPD inmates.

“The Pierce County Sheriff has refused to accept any inmates from the City Police Department; and the City seeks to enforce the Service Delivery Agreement (SDA) and all other legal duties of the Sheriff to accept and house inmates …,” the resolution reads.

However, in the absence of an agreement, the jail is booking individuals arrested by BPD for offenses indictable in State or Superior Court for approximately $62/day  — the amount Bennett says is his actual housing cost per prisoner.

“With no agreement, we’ll accept their inmates at cost … $62.85 a day,” Bennett says. “We don’t have any agreement on municipal court inmates, but I’ll take anybody charged with an indictable offense for cost.”

The SDA referenced in the resolution is a document detailing any service delivery arrangements between all cities and Pierce County. It sets the inmate housing fee at $35 per day. That agreement was updated and approved by all participating governments last year with no change to the inmate housing fee.

Bennett contends he isn’t bound by that agreement.

“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 said last month.

Blackshear officials disagree on that point, too, claiming the city is legally bound by the SDA and required to negotiate amendments to any service delivery agreements with the county commission, not with the sheriff.

“We have an obligation to only make intergovernmental agreements  — not with individuals. We’re at a standoff in that regard. The sheriff won’t budge and the county says it’s up to the sheriff,” Grissom says.

A meeting of county officials, city and county attorneys, the mayor, police chief and sheriff was reportedly held in mid-December, but no progress was made on resolving the matter.

“We met together around the middle of December and tried to resolve (this),” Grissom says. “We realized we were at an impasse unfortunately. There was nothing we could do because he (Sheriff Bennett) wouldn’t budge.”

Bennett confirms a meeting was held in mid-December and no agreement was reached. He points out, however, that city officials did not personally invite him to join the discussion.

“I didn’t receive any invitation to (the meeting) and would not have known about it had the county manager and county chairman of the board not given me notice,” Bennett says. “Nothing substantive came of that (meeting). They (city officials) were still on their same train of thought.”

Councilwoman Linda Gail Dennison asked Police Chief Chris Wright for an update on the situation at a city work session January 4 and was advised the matter was still unresolved.

“It has not been straightened out. In fact, we are unable to carry inmates to the Pierce County Jail right now,” Wright said. “I’ll send an email to get y’all up to speed on it.”

Wright later sent city council members a lengthy email detailing the timeline of events leading up to the jail’s refusal to accept an inmate reportedly arrested on domestic violence charges December 31. The Times obtained a copy of that email.

“The arresting officer attempted to book the individual charged into the Pierce County Jail but was denied access to enter the jail. A jailer told the arresting officer that the jail staff was given an order when they came on shift not to accept any inmate arrested by the Blackshear Police Department. The individual in custody was transported and booked in the Ware County Jail,” Wright relates.

“A BPD officer obtained an arrest warrant (the following day) for the individual arrested and served the warrant. The officer then transported the individual to the Pierce County Jail where he and the inmate were permitted to enter. Shortly after arriving at the Pierce County jail, a member of the jail staff discovered a bond hearing had not been conducted and ordered the officer and individual in custody to leave the jail,” the email continues.

Bennett confirmed the inmate was booked in the county jail following a bond hearing.

Grissom expects the special counsel’s first course of action will be an attempted mediation, but the firm may also seek a writ of mandamus from the court on the city’s behalf and suing the Sheriff isn’t off the table. (A writ of mandamus is an order from a court ordering a government official to properly fulfill their official duties or correct an abuse of discretion.)

Why not instruct City Attorney Adam Ferrell to handle the matter? The Times posed that question to Mayor Grissom.

Smith Welch, Webb & White reportedly specialize in these matters and the firm was recommended by the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA), the mayor says. City officials also wanted to rule out any potential conflict of interest on Ferrell’s behalf  — he also serves as state solicitor for Pierce County.

The resolution to retain special counsel was approved last week by a 5-1 vote with Councilwoman Dennison voting against the resolution. Dennison did not return calls from The Times for further comment on her reasons for voting no.