Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series on funding issues for Baldwin County’s law enforcement and judicial agencies.
With the state legislature now back in session, talks about new revenue sources and budget changes are running rampant.
But, when it comes to funding for key elements of Baldwin County’s judicial and law enforcement systems, how do our law enforcement and judicial officials feel about the funding?
In this three-part series, The Baldwin Times talks to the sheriff’s office, district attorney’s office and Baldwin County court system about the funding, or lack thereof, received from the state and what concerns they have moving into this new legislative session.
Baldwin County Sheriff Hoss Mack said he has no illusions about Baldwin County’s role as a donor county for the rest of the state.
“Whether you’re talking about the gas tax or lodging tax or even property tax, Baldwin County supplements the other 66 counties of the state,” Mack said. “What we send to Montgomery, we don’t get all of it back.”
Mack said while he’s certainly concerned about how state decisions will impact his sheriff’s office, he knows what happens to state agencies will definitely affect him.
“It’s not only about the money that is sent to us out of Montgomery,” Mack said. “It’s about the lack of funding at our state agency levels that affects us.”
Mack said the lack of funding for state level agencies continues to have a trickle down effect to the local level, pointing to some of the inmates at the Baldwin County jail as a perfect example.
“Currently, we have four females waiting in our jail to be transferred to serve their primary sentence for their parole violations,” Mack said. “Some of them have been waiting for over 40 days, but their time here doesn’t count toward their sentence and we get little to nothing to house those inmates at our facility save the amount we get for food costs, which doesn’t cover all of the costs.”
Mack said cuts to the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency made over the last decade have also affected his department and other sheriff’s offices around the state.
“It’s not unusual for us to send a deputy to a wreck scene and have to wait one or two hours for a trooper to get there,” Mack said. “That’s time and resources we as a county are having to spend because of state cutbacks.”
Proposed legislation for the new session
Mack said he and other sheriffs around the state are looking at several bills in the current legislation that could have further impacts on their budgets.
One bill that Mack and other law enforcement officials will have their eyes on is a bill that would change how the food bills are governed for county jails, in light of some sheriffs in other parts of the state using inmate meal funds to supplement their own salaries.
Mack said Baldwin County’s inmate feeding system has continued to operate at a loss.
“Meals cost $1.13 each or $3.38 per day,” Mack said. “The state gives us $1.75 per day to feed an inmate, so we’re losing $1.63 per day.”
With an average of 500 to 510 inmates per day in the Baldwin County jail facility, that amounts to an almost $815 per day loss that has to be made up.
Mack said he uses a housing agreement with the federal government and the city of Bay Minette to help bridge the funding gap on inmate meal plans.
With the proposed bill that will likely come before the legislature soon, Mack said sheriffs would no longer be able to claim inmate food money as personal income and that the bill would advocate for an increase in the reimbursement to county facilities to $3 per day.
“We’d still be losing some money even with the increase to $3 per day, but it would be a significant amount less than what we’re currently losing,” Mack said.
Another bill causing concern for Mack and other sheriffs is the proposed civil asset forfeiture bill. While some in the state legislature seek to do away with the program altogether, Mack said he believes that move to be harmful.
“Doing away with civil asset forfeiture completely would be devastating,” Mack said. “it’s one of the tools we in law enforcement need to have in our toolbox when dealing with criminal enterprises.”
Mack said what he believed would happen would be that the legislature would set some type of threshold for how and when civil asset forfeiture could be used.
“70 percent of the cases that the Southern Poverty Law Center and others took issue with were those that averaged less than a $5,000 seizure,” Mack said. “I think there ought to be some sort of threshold, whether it’s $5,000 or $10,000, that would be set to address some of those concerns while still allowing law enforcement the ability to use asset forfeiture as needed.”
Mack said he’s also keeping an eye on a proposed bill that would make changes to Alabama’s conceal carry permit laws.
“It doesn’t do away with permits, but it does say you can’t charge for permits and a permit wouldn’t be required in the state of Alabama under certain circumstances,” Mack said.
Mack said he worries that bill could carry unintended consequences for Alabama residents should they travel to a neighboring state, all of which require permitting for concealed carry.
“If you don’t have a permit in Florida, for example, that’s a felony because Florida has very stringent laws on that,” Mack said. “That would be putting some of our people at risk.”
Mack said the proposed conceal carry change would also have a potentially damaging effect on revenue.
“We’re going to have to keep having the same resources it takes to issue a permit, but we get no revenue for it,” Mack said. “We’re going to have to fund that out of the general fund if we want to be able to keep serving people at the same level we do now. We still have to pay staff, have the computer systems to run the required check and even purchase card stock - but with this new bill, we’d receive no revenue to offset those costs.”
Sen. Elliott’s extraterritorial jurisdiction bill
The major bill Mack and others are watching is Sen. Chris Elliott’s (R-Daphne) proposal that would eliminate police jurisdiction and planning jurisdiction enforcement by municipalities outside of their municipal limits. Mack said his department has continued to study the impact that bill could have on the county.
“When most people think about the police protection, it’s either the blue police cars or the brown and tan sheriff’s cars, but it’s more than that,” Mack said. “It’s dispatch services, it’s jail issues, it’s transportation and paper work issues. So, we’re looking at the possibility for probably a 30 to 40 person increase in our employment numbers because of that if it passes.”
Mack said the move to eliminate extraterritorial jurisdiction would also come with no increase in revenue.
“If the bill passes, we won’t get any additional revenue,” Mack said. “Some of what’s being collected now won’t be collected. It doesn’t revert or go to the county.”
Mack said he had asked Elliott to consider moving the effective date of the legislation to two budget seasons from this year, in order to give counties and municipalities more time to prepare for the possible change.
Mack said even if he received immediate approval and funding for the added positions he would need to take over more territory, it would take time to fully staff up.
“On average, based on some delays you can expect, it takes 28 to 38 weeks from the time you hire a deputy to when they’re out on the streets and answering calls,” Mack said. “We can only train about 7 or 8 deputies at a time, so with additional slots and backfilling positions that opened when we promoted some of our current deputies to school resource officers, it would take me 3 to 4 years to feel the full benefit of any newly created slots we might get. Even if the money was there, it would take a while to staff up and get to where we’re fully operational.”
Next week: We’ll talk to Baldwin County District Attorney Robert Wilters about how state funding cuts have affected his office and what legislation he’s watching this year.