Mercer County hires attorney to examine jail agreement with Boyle

Published 9:31 am Wednesday, January 24, 2018

 After hearing about plans to replace the Boyle County Detention Center’s fire alarm system, Mercer County Fiscal Court voted Tuesday to hire an attorney to look into what kinds of jail costs it’s responsible for under its interlocal agreement with Boyle County.

Mercer County Judge-Executive Milward Dedman said Tuesday afternoon the plan to hire outside help to examine the interlocal agreement was due to more general concerns about what Mercer pays in jail costs, not just because of the fire alarm issue. There have been “several things” over the past year that have “triggered” questions from magistrates, Dedman said.

“None of us are familiar with the (interlocal) agreement and we felt like we needed someone from the outside … to look over that agreement and tell us what it says,” Dedman said. “… It was an interlocal agreement written in 1996 … none of us had any part in coming up with that agreement, so we’re not that familiar with it. We feel like we need to become more familiar with it and what it actually says.

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“We’re not trying to get out of anything. We just want to understand what we’re responsible for and what we’re not responsible for.”

Dedman compared the situation to someone renting their home from a landlord: Boyle County owns the jail that Boyle and Mercer counties both use to house their inmates. A renter pays to live in a place, but not for maintenance issues related to upkeep of the facility; similarly, Mercer County officials want to know if the interlocal agreement requires them to pay for maintenance costs at the jail, he said.

Chief Deputy Jailer Brian Wofford said he and jail Captain Chad Holderman attended Tuesday’s Mercer County Fiscal Court meeting to answer questions about plans for the emergency replacement of the jail’s fire alarm system.

In early January, it was determined the system, which is giving off false alarms on a regular basis, would have to be shut down in order to be repaired. Because the system is so old, there is a good chance it won’t start back up again.

At a meeting of the Boyle-Mercer Joint Jail Committee Jan. 12, the committee voted 3-0 to recommend replacing the entire system at an estimated cost of around $37,000, rather than attempting what Holderman termed a $1,000 “Band-Aid” solution that could fail. 

(Not all of the $37,000 would be paid by the jail; several other Boyle County entities that share the system would each pay their portion.)

The Joint Jail meeting was lightly attended — a minimum quorum of three people were available to vote on the fire alarm issue. Boyle County Judge-Executive Harold McKinney, Boyle County Jailer Barry Harmon and Mercer County Attorney Ted Dean all voted in favor of replacing the system.

“We’re probably not the first facility that’s had to do this when we weren’t planning on it,” Dean said at the time. “I think we muddle through as best we can and we count on our employees to be diligent and at least it’s better to do it today (with an inmate population of) 260 than it would have been to do it seven months ago at 400.”

The Boyle County Fiscal Court followed suit on Jan. 17, declaring an emergency and authorizing funds to be spent out of the jail’s savings account. Installation of the new system is scheduled to begin Feb. 5 and completion is expected by March 2. During the installation, the jail will be using standalone smoke detectors and hiring temporary workers to perform “fire watch” patrols.

Wofford said he explained to the Mercer County Fiscal Court Tuesday morning that it would not need to pay anything for the replacement of the fire alarm system because the savings account is covering the jail’s portion of the costs.

“Basically a citizen asked why they should have to be paying on Boyle County’s jail,” Wofford said. “So basically, their fiscal court decided to hire an attorney to look at the interlocal agreement the two counties have on the joint jail to see if they’re going to have to be responsible for having to pay anything. That’s kind of it in a nutshell.”

Wofford said Mercer magistrates questioned why officials didn’t ask for multiple bids on the project, so he went over with them the emergency situation and the need for the new alarm system: The state is accepting the Joint Jail Committee’s and Boyle County Fiscal Court’s actions to replace the system in lieu of a state inspection that would have been due at the end of January. If the jail failed the inspection, it could have to shut down and the inmates would have to be transferred to other jails.

According to Wofford, it was after Wofford and Holderman presented that the Mercer magistrates took action to hire an attorney to look at the interlocal agreement.

Boyle County Treasurer Mary Conley said Mercer County Fiscal Court did not have to take any action concerning the fire alarm system, because the Joint Jail Committee is already authorized to approve such costs and use of the savings account means no additional expenditures are being asked for from Mercer County. Dedman confirmed Thursday that Mercer County Fiscal Court knows no action from it on the fire alarm issue is needed.

The jail savings account currently contains close to $297,000. Conley said Boyle and Mercer counties both put money they receive from the state in “local corrections assistance money” into the savings account each year.

The local corrections assistance funds began coming from the state four years ago, after legislation caused the Department of Corrections to save a large amount of money. Those savings were passed down to the counties, and Boyle and Mercer decided to put their portions into savings, Conley said.

Mercer and Boyle counties have been discussing the cost-sharing parameters of the interlocal jail agreement for months. Mercer County officials have said they don’t believe the current ratio —Mercer pays 35 percent of the jail’s net costs and Boyle County pays 65 percent — is fair.

The interlocal agreement ties how much each county pays to what percentage of the jail’s inmates come from each county. But there’s a minimum level of 35 percent for Mercer County. Mercer’s percentage of inmates has been below 35 percent for years and recent figures have placed it below 30 percent.

Mercer and Boyle officials have said Mercer County is planning to present a proposal for changes to the interlocal agreement, which would alter the cost-sharing ratio. But that proposal has not been presented yet.