Walker County using revenue from inmate services fund for new patrol cars, courthouse annex

Walker County using revenue from inmate services fund for new patrol cars, courthouse annex

March 23rd, 2018 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson

Photo by Jake Daniels /Times Free Press.

LAFAYETTE, Ga. — Walker County officials will use $350,000 earned through services for jail inmates to buy new patrol cars and renovate a building.

Sheriff Steve Wilson will spend about $275,000 on 10 or 11 new vehicles. Commissioner Shannon Whitfield will spend the rest of that money to renovate the inside of a building as a courthouse annex. The building, located at 201 S. Main St., also will house offices for public defenders, an office for a drug court coordinator and a room for a grand jury.

Overall, Whitfield said, the county needs about $200,000 to renovate the building. Among other changes, the county will upgrade the sprinkler system, install a security system with cameras and overhaul the bathrooms so they are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Whitfield plans to fund the rest of the project with money out of the superior court, law library and district attorney's office budgets.

In this Aug. 17, 2017, staff file photo, Walker County Commissioner Shannon Whitfield speaks to citizens gathered at the Walker County/LaFayette Public Library.

In this Aug. 17, 2017, staff file photo,...

Photo by Robin Rudd /Times Free Press.

Court officials need a new courthouse annex building by April 23, when some trials are supposed to start. The county already has such an office, located on South Duke Street, but they can't use it right now because an adjacent building collapsed last month.

Wilson said new vehicles are overdue. Overall, the sheriff's office has a fleet of 57 patrol cars. He aims to buy 14 new ones every year, but they didn't buy any in 2012 or 2014. Whitfield also didn't set aside money for cars in this year's budget.

When voters approved a new 1-percent sales tax in 2014, former Commissioner Bebe Heiskell budgeted $1.9 million for new patrol vehicles over five years. She bonded out on the revenue, getting millions in a lump sum and paying the debt off as the sales tax revenue came in. But Wilson said she diverted much of the patrol car money to build an industrial park. The sheriff's office only got about $390,000 of the promised money.

As a result, 17 of the fleet's cars have more than 140,000 miles on them. Wilson said the department's insurance company recommends removing patrol cars from the fleet once they hit 150,000 miles. They can then use them as non-emergency vehicles until they hit about 200,000 miles. At that point, the insurance company recommends selling them as surplus property.

With no money in the budget for the purchase, Wilson pulled the funds from revenue the jail makes off some services provided to inmates. If family members want to give an inmate money to buy snacks or other goods in jail, they transfer money into their account. A similar process goes on when the family members want to give inmates funds so they can make phone calls.

A company handles those accounts and keeps a fee. They also give the sheriff's office money as part of the deal. Asked Thursday night how long it takes the sheriff's office to accumulate $350,000, Wilson said he wasn't sure but estimated it takes several years.

"We're not going to make this much money every year," he said. "So don't look for me to come back next year with this kind of money. We'll have to pull another rabbit out of the hat somewhere."

Lawsuit settled

Whitfield also approved a settlement Thursday night with Bruce Roberts, the county's former state court judge. When Gov. Nathan Deal appointed Roberts to the bench in October 2011, Heiskell decided not to pay him as much as his predecessor, Judge Donnie Peppers.

While Peppers made $172,000, Heiskell only gave Roberts $100,000. After Roberts lost an election, he sued the county, arguing he was legally guaranteed the same amount as Peppers. Roberts lost — but so did the county. After Roberts sued, Heiskell counter-sued. She argued that Roberts intentionally cheated the county out of money and caused emotional distress by dismissing about 50 traffic cases in one day.

A judge didn't go for that argument, calling it "frivolous." The judge also ruled that the county would have to pay Roberts' attorney's fee to defend the lawsuit. On Thursday, five years after the legal battle began, Whitfield agreed to pay attorney Arch Farrar $60,000.

"This ... gets this beyond us," Whitfield said. "And chalks another one off the list of past problems we had to solve."

Landfill contract

Whitfield tabled a decision on whether to contract with a company to haul garbage away from the county's landfill.

During a special called meeting Wednesday, Whitfield unsealed three bids for a contract. But on Thursday, landfill manager Payne Gilley said he needs more time to estimate the impact of the deal.

Right now, the landfill on North Marbletop Road in Chickamauga only holds construction and demolition waste, like tree branches or chunks of concrete. People with typical household garbage can drop their stuff off at the site, but it won't stay there. County residents pay the landfill $40 per ton. Non-county residents pay $45 per ton. In turn, the county pays Republic Services of Chattanooga $40 a ton to haul the trash away.

The county is now running out of space for even the construction and demolition waste. At its current rate, Gilley believes it will have no room left by this summer. (The county may expand the landfill, but a decision is still in the works.)

Three companies have offered to haul off the waste. Santek Waste Services would charge $21 per ton of waste, plus a $475 fee for every trip a truck has to make. Republic Services of Chattanooga would charge $42 per ton. Environmental Trust Company would charge $32 a ton.

Right now, Gilley said, the county charges residents $30 per ton to drop the construction and demolition waste off at the landfill. This could force the county to charge people even more.

"So we're upside down in the numbers," Whitfield said.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.