­­Federal inmate deal on hold

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A technicality in a proposed agreement between Sheriff Dennis Meeks and the Covington County Commission could prevent the housing of federal inmates inside the Covington County Jail and cost an estimated $164,250 in annual revenue for the county.

Meeks said he has been pursuing a new contract as a “revenue stream” for his department since Federal Marshal’s terminated the first inmate housing in January 2009, one week after the New Year’s Day escape of a federal inmate, his efforts have proven successful, and Monday, commissioners met to approve an agreement between the sheriff and the commission to establish guidelines for the use of that revenue.

Under the terms of the contact, there is a $45-per day, per inmate charge for housing. Of that, $7 per day will be paid to the sheriff for feeding each federal inmate. The remaining $38 per-day, per inmate, will be split 50-50 between the county general fund and the sheriff’s pistol permit fund to be used “at his discretion solely for the purpose of compensating law enforcement personnel and other staff.”

The county will house 10 federal inmates “to start with,” county administrator Brenda Petty said.

“This is an at-will agreement, and (the Marshals) have said (the inmates are) yours for as long as (we) want them to be,” Petty said. “There can be no increase in salaries because we have seen that money can go away.”

Meeks said his only motivation in pursuing the agreement was to generate revenue to fund salary increases for his department.

The county’s solution? Salary compensation paid not as a “raise” but as an annual lump sum payment payable only when revenues are sufficient to cover the cost.

However, there is contention between Meeks and the commission over the wording of one sentence – “Other than cost-of-living increases granted uniformly to all county employees, no salary increases for law enforcement shall be paid directly from general county revenues as long as this agreement is in force.”

Meeks said it is his intention to use the federal inmate money just as it is proposed, but he believes the sentence wording eliminates his ability to budget CCSO employees’ annual merit raises using general fund money.

Meeks said the CCSO salaries average an estimated $2 per hour less than what other departments are paying.

“I’ve had (employees) quit because they can’t survive on what they make,” he said. “(The federal inmate revenue) will be put in a pool and disbursed to employees at the end of the year. That’s what it’s there for, but I believe that merit raises should be given out of the general fund, not out of this money. This money is to supplement, to get employees closer to the average salary.”

Petty said the wording was included to prevent using the revenue for “traditional, every pay period raises.”

“Obviously, it needs clarifying as to the true meaning of that sentence,” Petty said. “(Meeks) has done a good job of staying within his budget. All of his regular operating expenses – including salaries – are funded by the general fund. That won’t change.”

Petty and commissioners have stated their portion of the revenue – estimated initially at $69,350 – will be used to shore up the “general fund” in an effort to eliminate the mandate that employees take compensatory time instead of being paid overtime.

“One day, we hope to be able to pay overtime,” Petty said. “This extra revenue will let us do that.”

Until that clarification is made, Meeks said he’s in a “holding pattern.”

“I’m willing to work with (the commission),” he said. “I don’t want them to lose out on money or (the sheriff’s office) to lose out either.”

Later in the afternoon, a clarified version of the agreement was sent out to media, changing the wording to “extraordinary salary increases for law enforcement” shall not be paid.

Added was, “Salary increases related to promotions, deputy certification or assignment of additional duties, will continue to be paid from the Sheriff’s General Fund budgets, so long as such increases do not cause the line-items for salaries and fringe benefits to exceed the amounts budgeted for these purposes.”

Attempts to reach Meeks for comment were unsuccessful.

In other business, the commission:

agreed to pay county employees of five years or more for half of their accrued sick leave at the end of their employment.

declared seven CCSO vehicles as surplus and put them up for sale at govdeals.com.

approved an agreement with U.S. Networx for a new county Web site.

agreed to provide and pay for up to five years of health insurance premiums for retired county employees.

approved a one-year agreement with Southern Health Professionals for medical services at the county jail.

established a committee to award the bid for pay phone services at the county jail.

approved a loan extension agreement with the South Alabama Regional Airport until Sept. 1, to allow adequate time to secure financing for its bond agreement.