The year that was:

Goodbye prisoners, hello budget woes

By Jan Runions -

Worries over decertification of the Claiborne County Jail invaded a good portion of the headlines in 2016. Woefully overcrowded conditions brought about by the housing of federal and state inmates threatened to snatch a substantial chunk of change from the county coffers if an acceptable remedy was not found.

Plans to expand the jail was met by ardent opposition, spearheaded by county resident Joe Brooks and others who believed the proposal was not necessary.

Just do away with the housing of discretionary prisoners, and the problem goes away, so they thought.

Expansion plans moved along via the Claiborne Correctional Partnership Act Committee (the jail committee) despite a petition to put the matter to public vote by referendum.

Discussions during the Claiborne Commission and Jail Committee meetings became argumentative to the point of name-calling and personal slams, as both sides ardently protested the other’s stance.

The annual budget committee meetings bogged down as the county waited for results from the referendum vote. Should the bond issue pass, the budget would need to reflect the funds and interest charges. If it failed, nearly $1.8 million in revenues generated through the housing of discretionary inmates could be in jeopardy – no funds for a jail expansion could very well lead to decertification of the jail.

The bond issue was overwhelmingly voted down, placing the county precariously between ‘a rock and a hard place.’

Budget committee members seemed to grasp at straws when deciding just how to replace the revenues that might be lost if the jail was decertified.

During one meeting, Sheriff David Ray ‘begged’ the county commissioners to give him “something” he could take to the Tennessee Corrections Institute (TCI) control board, those in charge of deciding continued certification, as a show of ‘measurable progress’ toward alleviating jail overcrowding.

A last-ditch effort by the commission to create a plan of action netted the decision to do away entirely with the federal inmate contract and to accept only half the state prisoners the county averaged.

The commissioners spent nearly an hour debating amendments before deciding to adopt the resolution in its original format.

The blood, sweat and tears that went into the final decision proved for naught, however. In September, the TCI control board unanimously voted to decertify the jail.

The idea for a property tax increase was born out of a need to balance the budget. The committee kicked around several options, including a tax levy of 30 cents per $100 of assessed value.

After much wrangling, the budget committee decided upon a plan. The final version included a property tax hike of ten cents and the reduction of commission salaries by $100 per month, per county commissioner.

The County Landfill Department and the Claiborne Industrial Board would lose a portion of their respective reserves as those funds were to be transferred into the general fund. The Landfill would effectively lose over $200,000 while the Industrial Board had about $50,000 of its reserves dropped into the general fund.

During the next commission meeting, the plan was adopted.

The budget apparently ‘passed muster’ with the state comptroller, and was rubber-stamped at its extended deadline.

However, the county soon found itself nervously playing with the financial figures as it became clear that salaries in the courthouse offices and the Claiborne Sheriff’s Department might not be met.

The county commission gave its ‘thumbs up’ to the acquisition of a $500,000 tax anticipation note that would be used as ‘a management tool for cash flow purposes.’ The funds would cover any shortfalls that might occur in the general fund if monies from property taxes were not realized in a timely fashion.

Despite the loss of the state and federal inmates, the county seems to have squeaked by financially during 2016. Next year, however, may be a whole different animal. The county finance office has projected next-to-zero balances going into the 2017 budget preparation phase.

Reach Jan Runions at 423-254-5588 or on Twitter @scribeCP.

Goodbye prisoners, hello budget woes

By Jan Runions

comments powered by Disqus