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Editorial - Sullivan Jail desperately needs more employees

• Jun 7, 2019 at 9:45 AM

The Sullivan County Commission must find the backbone and stick to its guns on giving the sheriff’s department very badly needed help, the kind that can save lives.

The overcrowding problem at the county jail requires a long-term strategy to be informed by a consultant’s report detailing options. But the commission has opportunity right now to address the jail’s other major deficit: under-staffing.

The commission has been debating a request for more funding to pay for additional employees at the jail, a move proponents say would make it safer for both inmates and officers. It also might decrease the risk of lawsuits against what Sheriff Jeff Cassidy says are unconstitutional conditions.

And increasing jail staff could also save money by reducing overtime, which Sheriff Cassidy says has cost at least $71,500 just since Jan. 1. That’s about $3,500 per week in overtime for facilities certified to house about 622 inmates but which has topped 900 and, Cassidy fears, will hit 1,000 this summer.

Commissioner Hunter Locke stepped up with a resolution for 32 new jail employees at a cost of $2 million. Locke later offered a good-faith compromise and, along with co-sponser Commissioner Angie Stanley, reduced the request to 20 new employees at a cost of $1 million. To their credit, the commission overwhelmingly approved Locke’s resolution and sent it to the Budget Committee for funding consideration.

A draft budget from County Mayor Richard Venable and Accounts and Budgets Director Larry Bailey identified only $350,000 in available revenue for new jail employees (without raising taxes for that purpose) and suggested it pay for two nurses and four correctional officers.

The draft budget included a 2 cent tax increase to pay for school resource officers, to cover the commission’s prior commitment to do so. Commissioner Colette George, citing the commission’s overwhelming vote in favor of sending the full $1 million request to the Budget Committee, made a motion to add another 2 cents to the proposed tax increase to make up the difference between the $350,000 and the full $1 million. Commissioner John Gardner seconded, and a the motion was approved, on voice vote, by a majority of the Budget Committee.

The full commission should now see it through. The department needs those jobs to protect the welfare and safety of its corrections officers as well as the inmates. There’s no question about that.

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