Corrections officers get layoff notices as feds cut ICE program for jail
By Randa Wagner -
The recent changes in the way the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is handling the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) program is taking a toll on the Morrow County Correctional Facility.
“We’re not going to be able to maintain our current level of operations,” Sheriff Steve Brenneman told commissioners at a special meeting Friday morning.
The very program that prevented the closing of the financially-strapped jail in the Spring of 2009 is now paring back on the number of illegal immigrants to be housed at county correctional centers. DHS has released more than 2,000 immigrants in February with plans to release 3,000 more during March, the Associated Press reported March 2, 2013.
For the Morrow County Jail, going from 50–55 detainees per day to 25–30 is a significant cut in funding from the federal government; financing the facility relies on to pay the salaries of corrections officers and jail personnel. At the time the sheriff signed a contract with ICE, he knew it would take an average of 50 detainees per day to meet payroll. Operational costs have been cut over the years as well, down to the present $333,000 from the county’s general fund.
“Right now, we have just over one month’s worth of salary money available that will get us through March,” Brenneman said. “We have $149,000 due to come into outside housing from ICE from Hardin, Lawrence and a few other counties. When it gets here, that will be two months’ worth of salaries.”
The sheriff explained the January billing for ICE hasn’t arrived yet, but the billing is not going to keep up with payroll.
“We have to have over $70,000 a month coming in,” the sheriff explained. “In February we billed $44,000 — we need $70,000… the numbers don’t work.”
Counties are responsible for provided housing for inmates, and whether it’s in their own facility or another county’s, it costs money to house them and provide medical care.
Brenneman and his staff sat down and worked out three options, “none of which are good,” he said.
Option 1. Completely shut down the jail and house inmates in other facilities.
Averaging 45 Morrow County inmates a day, it comes to $750,000 a year just in housing costs: it doesn’t include transportation, medical expenses, etc. Most jails average cost is $60 — $65 per day, and at just $50 a day, it’s $750,000 to house them out.
Option 2: Just house local prisoners in the felony pod area, which will hold 21 inmates. That means finding housing for 24, which is about $350,000, annually plus the cost of housing the local inmates.
Option 3, which was the chosen route: Close down one dorm, keep the pods open and keep one housing area open.
“We would still do some housing for ICE and still have some income coming in,” Brenneman explained. “We would have to put a 12’ x 10’ barrier up (about $500–600) between the two pod areas to separate the males and females. The issue with that is one pod holds 10 inmates and one holds 11; we are averaging 11 females. We would be overcrowded in those pods.”
Going this route required giving March 24 layoff notices to seven employees Friday. Even with about 25 ICE detainees per day, the facility is still short about $350,000 a year. That amount does not account for the unemployment benefits.
ICE officials have indicated to the sheriff’s office they are at the maximum number of detainees they are going to get for the year.
Commissioner Tom Whiston said in the meantime, they will proceed to see if there are additional prisoner resources the county can get.
“Maybe the feds can clarify what their position is on releasing detainees and, rather than sending another $250 million of aid to Egypt, we can focus on maintaining the budget issues that operate our own country. It’s an issue that affects our ability to take care of our own residents in the county.”
He said the commissioners are going to do all they can to insure they provide for the safety and protection of county residents and have an adequate means for incarceration with every available option.
“We are going to pursue every possible function,” he maintained. “My top priority is corrections and enforcement.”
The jail cuts are not the only issue, however. Brenneman said the issue with ICE also affects law enforcement.
“I have a dispatcher, two office personnel and our court security officer that are also paid out of the ICE money,” he told commissioners. “We had to transfer them because of where we were on the enforcement budget — they’ve been paid out of ICE for the last year. We have not figured out how to get a dispatcher and the court security officer funded,” adding the shortfall on the law enforcement side could add another $100,000 to the deficit by the end of the year.
Commissioner Tom Harden commented those amounts are in addition to the $450,000 the county owes in outstanding Job and Family Services debts.
“We will make sure we get our bills paid, and if that means cutting things or cutting staff elsewhere, we’re going to do that,” Commissioner Whiston stated.
County Treasurer Dan Green said it was ‘a shame we’re talking about laying people off’ when the state has such a large rainy day fund.
“When we get to a point where we’re not adequately able to protect the people, we’re laying more people off and we have this money sitting here that’s not doing anything, something’s wrong, folks,” Green said. “It shouldn’t be that tough to get this across to our legislators and our governor, if need be. This is not right.”
“I’ve directed the prosecutor to provide me with which funds the Commissioners have the ability to divert or use to make sure we’re paying our bills,” Whiston said. “I think that’s paramount.”
Regarding the issue of the outstanding JFS bills, Whiston said he has spoken on the phone with Ohio Vice Chairman of Finance Jeff McClain, Senator Burke, Congressman Pat Tiberi, and with Senators Rob Portman and Sherrod Brown’s offices.
“So we, as commissioners, have contacted and spoken with every elected official at the state and federal level and have informed them of the situation we’re faced with,” Whiston said. “Senator Burke is more aware of the Job & Family Services operations, and it doesn’t directly tie to corrections but does tie to the issue we have $430,000 in outstanding bills and were given $147,000 for fiscal year 2013 to pay them with. So, if I have to pay those, that means I can’t fund my corrections and enforcement which is, what I feel I should be funding.”
Commissioner Harden said the state auditor’s office had two representatives there Wednesday and their report stated Morrow County is ‘looking at a $1.9 million shortfall this year.’
“The problem is real,” Whiston said, “and I want the residents to understand that; whether that means putting a levy back on until it gets to the point they understand we need that revenue.”
Whiston added they will pare back until they get to the bare minimum, but will need additional funds, nonetheless.
“We can’t continue to operate with a $6.8 million certification and expect to operate cruisers with 200,000 miles on them and provide adequate security for the county,” he stressed. He told Brenneman the commissioners are going to support the sheriff’s office by working diligently to find the money to maintain the staff and to try to make sure the county maintains the 5-year contract with ICE.
ICE operates detention centers throughout the United States. About 31,000 illegal aliens are held in immigration detention on any given day, in over 200 detention centers, jails, and prisons nationwide.