In a unanimous vote on Monday, the Vigo County Council took action to immediately fund 24 jail positions this year and to add the two dozen positions in 2019.
“This is what we have been ordered by the federal court, to make that funding available. Now the responsibility goes to the sheriff and their department to see if they can comply with those requirements,” councilman Mike Morris said after the meeting.
“I think that the council was caught off guard by the severity of the court order by the federal judge,” Morris said. “It did not leave any room or any doubt in anyone’s mind to make these [new position] decisions.
“The decision for funding [new jail positions] in 2019 has not been made, but the anticipation is from a portion of the new [increase local income] tax that was passed,” Morris said.
The council passed ordinances to transfer $109,000 in its current budget to the jail for immediate hiring of new positions. The council earlier this month had approved $41,000 to immediately hire three jail positions for the remainder of this year. Those three new positions are in the county’s 2019 budget.
Each new jail position in 2019 will cost the county $68,540, which includes salary and benefits, said Kylissa Miller, council administrator. That will come to more than $1.6 million in 2019 for the 24 jail positions. The public safety tax included in the county’s local income tax increase is projected to raise nearly $2 million next year.
An Oct. 2 jail staffing report from Bill Wilson of Jail-Services, a Bloomington-based jail consulting firm, recommended 29.88 — nearly 30 people, but with jail additions and three staff added this month, that number is now 24, Morris said.
“In the court order, the judge wants us to act on funding those positions,” Morris said. “As the ramp up is made, obviously the jail can’t go out and hire 24 people today, so as they ramp that up, it will be reviewed. The judge has demanded there will be a review....to ensure [Constitutional] conditions are met.”
In discussion prior to the vote, Councilman Bill Thomas said he was in the U.S. Social Security office and saw hired security. Thomas asked if such contracted security can be added to the county courthouse, to make other positions available to the county jail, and asked how many positions the jail realistically could have in place by the end of the year.
“Our goal is to get staffed as much as the council appropriates as quickly as possible,” said Charlie Funk, jail commander. “I have asked that a [job] positing be run for the rest of this year and asked [the county’s Human Resources Department] to give me the applications as they come in.”
“I have looked at the study and it is a lot of people and a lot of money for us to come up with moving forward,” Thomas said. “Is there any chance that some of these folks could be part-time people, to help keep costs down?”
Funk, stating he addressed that issue with Jail-Services, said part-time employees are “not necessarily loyal to their part-time job, especially if they have a full-time job,” adding the job pays just $12 an hour. Sheriff Greg Ewing said he is not certain if full-time court positions can be shifted to the jail and then use contracted security for the courthouse.
Ewing said he does not know the cost difference in contract positions versus county employees, but cautioned against having certain positions contracted.
Councilman Tim Curley said hiring contracted security “would be a slippery slope in a criminal justice system” going in and out of different courts. “The county has to bite the bullet and do what is right. You can’t second guess this. It is what it is, this isn’t the Social Security office.”
Councilwoman Vicki Weger suggested the county could appropriate half the number of jailers, then appropriate more in 2019 as needed. “We can always appropriate more money,” she said. “I don’t want to appropriate money for a jail that is not built.”
Ewing conceded the county could hire half, as logistically it would take time to hire more jail correctional officers. “That is a very good start, but I would also make sure that in and amongst this council, it is understood that as the time progresses that we don’t forget about the other half,” the sheriff said.
Councilman Jim Mann referred to the federal court order, stating “new staff will be added in the immediate future without delay.” Mann questioned if the 24 new positions will meet the guidelines of the court. Sheriff Ewing said yes.
Councilman Brendan Kearns, while he would be willing to reduce the number of positions funded for the current jail, the council has to rely on the jail staffing study to provide a jail that meets Constitutional requirements.
“I think we need to move forward with this. I appreciate your concession on doing half now and maybe half later. While getting something is better than nothing,” Kearns said the council has to act on the full staffing recommendation.
Council President Aaron Loudermilk said a court order requires at least 3 hours of recreation per week outside of jail cells and have jail staff to meet health and safety needs of inmates.
“She doesn’t say once the new facility is operational,” Loudermilk said of an order from U.S. Chief District Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson.
Loudermilk said anything less than what is recommended in the staffing report puts the county at risk. “To me this latest order by the judge, she means business. I think her tolerance for the lack of progression throughout the years is wearing thin. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to test a federal judge,” Loudermilk said.
In a side note, prior to jail position discussion, Councilman Tim Curley sought a vote to suspend the council rules saying the council set its meeting time at 6 p.m. Curley said there was little opportunity for the public to attend. Council Attorney Robert Effner said the 6 p.m. time was set for the regularly scheduled meeting, but Monday’s meeting was a special call of the council. Effner said council rules state the council can meet as needed in special meetings.