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Friday, December 30, 2016
Only Bama sheriffs keep leftovers Sheryl Marsh Staff Writer Feb 1, 2009
The practice of sheriffs keeping money left from feeding inmates could be stopped in the Alabama Legislature.
Not only does a 1939 law allow taxpayer money to be given away, sheriffs do not have to disclose the amounts they pocket because the funds are not audited.
The giveaway to sheriffs does not exist in other Southeastern states, including Florida, Tennessee, Mississippi and Georgia.
In those states sheriffs are responsible for feeding inmates and, like patrol cars and payroll expenses, a line item is in their annual county budgets for supplies and food to feed inmates.
“The county commissions put money in the sheriffs’ budgets to spend for food,” said Ned Hafner, director of corrections and jail services for the Florida Sheriffs Association.
“A lot of jails go after private enterprise to contract for inmate meals and right off the top they save money,” said Hafner. “No such law allowing sheriffs to pocket money exists in this state. I know some who are in jail who tried to do that, but I’ve never heard of elected officials keeping public money for personal use.”
Tennessee has a similar operation, according to Dyer County Sheriff Jeff Holt, who is also president of the state’s Sheriffs Association.
“Each sheriff sets his own budget and requests so much for food for the fiscal year,” Holt explained.
“Our records are public, and I can tell you that for the last fiscal year our food budget was $144,000. We have a daily average of about 187 inmates.
“We were about $13,000 over last year, but we pulled it from other line items where we saved money. The county did not appropriate any new money to cover the shortage.”
Merv Waldrop, county administrator for Burke County Commission, said Georgia abolished a fee system law decades ago.
“All constitutional officers of the state used to be on a fee system, and when the state Legislature set salaries, they did away with that system,” said Waldrop. “Sheriffs’ salaries are set based on each county’s population. If you’ve got more population, your salary starts at a higher level.”
Burke County contracts with a vendor to provide meals for inmates, and it is a savings to the county. The food is a line item in the sheriff’s budget.
Darryl Hicks, chief of staff in the Fulton County Commission office in Atlanta, said the sheriff there also receives an appropriation in his budget for food.
“We take bids for the food contract, and then the commission has to approve the contract for feeding inmates,” Hicks said.
Mississippi has strong accountability for all money sheriffs receive, according to Harrison County Sheriff Melvin Bri-solara, who is also executive director of the state’s Sheriffs Association.
“The money is put into the sheriffs’ budgets by the county commissions, and here we contract our food service, which is more economical,” said Brisolara. “None of the revenue we receive (including pistol permit) goes to the sheriff. It all goes in to the county general fund.
“When I house federal inmates, the money from that goes into the general fund. Food money is put in a line item in the budget and it is appropriated by the board (commission). Any adjustments or re-appropriation have to be approved by the board. The only money that does not go to the general fund is the federal forfeiture money, and it is under federal statute.”
The federal money is audited and used to buy law enforcement equipment.
The food money that Alabama sheriffs take for personal use is not audited by the state Examiners of Public Accounts. Sheriffs don’t have to tell anyone how much taxpayer money they keep. They’re only required to report the extra money on state and federal income tax returns.
Like officials in the other states, Brisolara has never heard of a law like Alabama’s.
“It breeds corruption,” he said.
Alabama odd state out
Alabama law permits Morgan County Sheriff Greg Bartlett and 54 other sheriffs to make a business out of feeding inmates.
The state gives each sheriff an annual allotment and the less they spend for food, the more they take for themselves.
Bartlett brought attention to the food money recently when U.S. District Judge U.W. Clemon put him in a federal prison for a night after holding him in contempt for inadequately feeding inmates.
Inmates told the judge about small-portioned meals such as half an egg for breakfast and paper-thin bologna sandwiches for lunch. During his six-year tenure, Bartlett amassed $316,000 in addition to his annual salary.
Alabama Sheriffs Association Director Bobby Timmons said he’s writing legislation to change the Depression-era law to stop sheriffs from pocketing the money and put county commissions in charge of paying for inmate food.
Officials of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama say they will fight the legislation because the Legislature could abolish the law and stop sheriffs from taking the money for personal use.
They said the sheriff should still feed the inmates, not county commissions.
Sheriffs in the other states are held to U.S. Department of Agriculture standards for feeding inmates.
“We have to have a diet set by a registered dietitian and have a menu on file,” said Holt. “We have an organization called Tennessee Corrections Institute which monitors our jails, and all jails have a set of standards that they have to meet.”
The organization conducts random inspections of the jails, Holt said.
To get out of jail earlier this month, Bartlett agreed to stop taking the food money and to use it all to feed inmates.
Clemon put the agreement along with other requirements in a court order to amend a 2001 consent decree that he said Bartlett violated for inadequately feeding inmates.
The decree requires Bartlett to provide nutritional meals for inmates in accordance with USDA standards.
Bartlett tried to back out of the agreement last week when he filed a motion asking Clemon to reverse his ruling and allow him to start back taking the inmate food money.
Change on the way?
Clemon denied the motion, calling it frivolous.
Bartlett will have to follow the decree, which stemmed from a lawsuit inmates filed over poor jail conditions eight years ago. The decree remains open for future complaints from other inmates.
Local delegates of the Alabama Legislature have vowed to take the lead to amend or abolish the 1939 state law to keep sheriffs from taking the money. The Legislature goes into session Monday.