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Sheriffs summit starts conversation on jail funding dilemma

by: Stover E. Harger III CONTROLS — In the Columbia County Jail’s Master Control room Deputy Derek Hicks was the lone officer controlling who gets in and who gets out of the facility Monday afternoon.

Stabilizing funding for the Columbia County Sheriff's Office was the topic of discussion Friday afternoon at what Sheriff Jeff Dickerson called a 'services reduction summit.'

The Sept. 9 meeting - attended by a cross section of county leaders, politicians and law enforcement officials - was the first county-wide conversation about the office's dwindling revenue since Dickerson announced last month that he would have to find alternative revenue sources to maintain funding for beds at the county jail.

Dickerson originally proposed charging cities to reserve beds at the jail for local detainees, a plan that was roundly criticized by city officials and Municipal Court Judge Diana Shera Taylor.

At the meeting, representatives from across the county discussed how budget woes have affected their communities or programs. Many attendees characterized the meeting as the beginning of a longer, more involved conversation.

But a key theme voiced by representatives in attendance was nearly universal: The county, cities and city programs are feeling the effects of the budget crunch.

County Commissioner Tony Hyde said the potential jail bed reductions come at a bad time for the county, as discretionary revenue has dropped to less than $11 million. Traditionally, the county has received assistance in the form of federal timber payments, but that program appears unlikely to pass through a stalemated Congress in its present incarnation.

'My confidence level is at a point where we have a [county] budget without the timber payments,' Hyde said. 'I'm not confident [about receiving payments].'

Meanwhile, Columbia County's three circuit court judges and Judge Taylor announced they'd met earlier to discuss possible solutions. Circuit Court Judge Steven Reed said the judges are working on a 'scheme for releasing people early.'

The judges call it a sort of 'matrix,' which would emphasize which types of prisoners should stay in jail and which should be released ahead of schedule, and under what circumstances.

'We want to be involved with creating that matrix,' Reed said.

Taylor said it was important municipal courts still have the jail at their disposal for habitual probation violators, even if the stays are shorter than they've been in the past.

At the summit, Dickerson mainly listened. But he said the Sheriff's Office wants to take a 'long-term' view of generating sufficient revenue to keep his office running.