The expectation for the City of Clinton to pay prisoner fees and contribute to 911 operations led to a, at times, contentious meeting last Tuesday night, Jan. 23, in the county annex.
The meeting was a preliminary toward the formation of a Quorum Court Committee to develop policy and procedures for county law enforcement and 911 operations. The meeting was chaired by JP Mary Philips who, with JP Brian Tatum, will co-chair the committee being formed. Also in attendance were Justice Dell Holt, Clinton Police Chief John Willoughby, Fairfield Bay Police Chief David Burnett, Fairfield Bay Mayor Paul Wellenberger and County Judge Roger Hooper.
Tatum said the meeting was intended to “draw in all the stakeholders” and have the conversation about fees, rather than the Quorum Court passing an ordinance mandating fees absent input. The issue, he said, was the fees for housing prisoners. Currently Clinton and Fairfield Bay do not pay for prisoners housed at the county jail - which is funded via the county. Clinton does pay $12,000 per year to the county to cover a share of a dispatcher.
The argument started quickly after the meeting opening, with Gurley showing the gathering a $3,000 bill the county received for medical services for a prisoner checked in by Clinton. Willoughby pointed out the bill came from the inmate being Tazed 15 minutes after check-in for a misdemeanor, implying it was an overreaction.
This led to a back-and-forth, at times heated, between Gurley and Willoughby. Gurley, in turn, presented a law firm's legal opinion in the necessity to pay for prisoners, which in turn drew Burnett into the debate, who questioned the viability of Gurley's document. (Gurley and Willoughby, by meeting end, were seen conferring quietly and apparently amicably.)
The problem centered on the legal requirement to pay for prisoners, and at what point a prisoner is a county issue after being arrested by a city police officer. In several circuits around the table it was pointed out that while the state attorney general had offered opinions on this - indicating a requirement to pay for prisoners - no specific law, either by court or statute, could be used to assign fees or the requirement to pay them.
Further complexities exist in a jail fee charged to every jail check-in ranging from $5 to $20
Nor did the matter end at jail fees. While Fairfield Bay had been negotiating with the sheriff's office for per-prisoner jail fee, that was not enough, Wellenberger said.
“We are not going to pay a sheriff department bill if Clinton is not paying for 911,” Wellenberger said, ultimately several times.
Last November at the county-wide intergovernmental meeting, City of Clinton Mayor Richard McCormac was told that his city should pay a fee of $25,000 to Fairfield Bay to help fund 911 Center operations. At the same meeting was when jail fees were brought up. All cities, and the county, passed 2018 budgets without Clinton's contribution requested at that November meeting.
Willoughby had proposed a $25,000 jail fee to the county in preparing his departments 2018 budget, but cutting out department overtime, but this was turned down by Clinton City Council, preferring to use the money on overtime.
In Tuesday's meeting, however, it was made clear that the expectation going forward was that Clinton would contribute both prisoner fees and 911 costs.
“The [Clinton] City Council is going to have to step up,” Holt said.
City of Clinton Mayor Richard McCormac, who was not at the Tuesday meeting, said later “If the city gets a bill we pay it.” He added that any bill would be subject to legal review.
While not expressed at the meeting, during the budget planning for 2018 cities, and especially the county, had to deal with budget shortfalls due to, most of all, the impact of the lawsuit by Southwestern Energy (SWN) for lower assessment fees. While the lawsuit is underway the county is not receiving any assessment money, resulting in a $300,000 cut in the county's 2018 general fund.
The first official meeting of the committee is Feb. 6 at 6 p.m., in the annex.