Published: Tuesday, December 12, 2006
Traficanti supports proposed budget The plan is to reopen all of the county jail
'We need steady revenues,' a commissioner says.
YOUNGSTOWN The chairman of the Mahoning County commissioners said Sheriff Randall Wellington's proposed $19.7 million budget for 2007 seems reasonable.
"According to the story that he's told and the budget numbers we have, the sheriff's not out of line," Commissioner Anthony Traficanti said after the commissioners' budget hearing for the sheriff's department Monday. "That's what the sheriff of Mahoning County says he needs to operate that jail constitutionally, and we're going to take a serious look at that," Traficanti added, calling Wellington's budget documents compelling.
The sheriff said his proposed $19.7 million budget for 2007 would allow him to open all of the county's main jail building.
That figure, which is $3.8 million higher than what the sheriff expects to spend this year, would allow for the hiring of 42 additional deputies needed to reopen unused portions of the jail and raise the capacity to 564 inmates, said warden Alki Santamas. The 42 would include 34 deputies and eight supervisors, the sheriff added.
Wellington's proposed budget, however, does not include reopening the county's separate misdemeanor jail for overnight use, which Tom DeGenova, fiscal officer in the sheriff's department, said would cost an additional $2 million. That misdemeanor jail building is now used for day-reporting inmate work programs.
Importance of sales tax
Traficanti said renewal of the half-percent sales tax next year is critical to maintenance of a viable jail operation.
"Without that sales tax, you do not have a criminal justice department; you do not have a sheriff's department; and you do not have those services for this county," Traficanti said. Commissioners plan to put the tax, which expires next year, before the voters in May, but they aren't sure if it will have a five-year time limit or be a continuing tax with no time limit, he said.
"We've got to stop the insanity. We need steady revenues in Mahoning County," he said, referring to the nearly $41 million the county has lost from sales tax defeats at the polls over the past 10 years.
Each of the county's two half-percent sales taxes generates about $14 million a year, and sales tax revenue comprises more than 57 percent of the county's general fund. Voters renewed one of those sales taxes in May 2005.
No other Ohio county with a comparable population or crime rate operates with less than a combined 1 percent sales tax, Traficanti said.
The sheriff said his department spends substantially more money than any other county government department. Judicial and law enforcement spending consume more than 69 percent of the county's general fund. About 80 percent of the sheriff's budget goes for wages and benefits.
Traficanti said, however, "Our deputies are the lowest-paid deputies in the entire area. The deputies have not had a raise in the last five years. They pay a portion of their health care." He was referring to the $21,713 starting annual salary for a Mahoning County deputy, which is far below the $31,069 for their counterparts in Trumbull County.
County Administrator George Tablack noted that Youngstown, Boardman, Canfield and Austintown police officers all start above $31,000 a year, and Campbell police start at $25,893.
The budget hearing followed release last week of the report of a court-appointed expert, who said overcrowding has made the jail a security nightmare.
In his report, the expert, Vincent M. Nathan, concluded that only a prisoner-release order limiting the jail to 288 inmates (with a practical operating limit of 268) will remedy the unconstitutional overcrowding. A panel of three federal judges appointed Nathan to issue the report and set a hearing for May 16-17, 2007, on whether the panel should issue a prisoner-release order.
Result of lawsuit
The panel's involvement stems from a federal class-action lawsuit filed against the county by jail inmates in November 2003. U.S. District Judge David D. Dowd Jr. has been overseeing jail operations since March 2005 when he determined the lockup was overcrowded and unsafe.
Despite an inmate-release mechanism devised by the county common pleas judges to limit the jail to 296 inmates, the jail housed 486 inmates Nov. 16, with 382 of them in double occupancy cells, Nathan reported.
Sheriff Wellington said he believes the jail will meet constitutional standards if he can open the entire building. Currently, 134 of the sheriff's department's 224 deputies work in the jail, with the remainder assigned to administration, court security and other tasks.
"With our jail reduced as it is now, we only have certain areas to place the inmate population," Santamas said, explaining that, under current conditions, it's not possible to classify and separate inmates properly by age and propensity for violence.
Once the whole jail can be opened, such separations can appropriately be made, he said.
"Certainly, we want that jail to be constitutional, and, if the money's there and we have it, we're certainly going to look forward to helping the sheriff get that appropriation that he's requested," Traficanti said.
In the past, county commissioners have cut other county government departments' budgets to fund jail operations, he noted.